Silly season’s here again

Earlier in the week, Channel 4’s Samira Ahmed sent these messages to Twitter:

SamiraAhmedC4: MATHS HELP! Do I need to say “comma” if I read out this formula tonight: p(h,r)=u(h,r)-pr=g(h, Zr)+f1[h, m(o,r)]+f2[h, m(o,r)]+E-pr.
Aug 16, 2010 03:56 PM GMT

SamiraAhmedC4: It’s the formula to explain how Blackpool (like Bath before it) is becoming classier.
Aug 16, 2010 03:57 PM GMT

If you’ve spent any time at all watching the debunking of bad science coverage, you’ll be wincing, because that formula has all the signs of being total tosh. August is silly season, the time of year where PR companies know they can trot out any old rubbish and it’ll make headline news because nothing else is going on. It’s a tried and tested method.

Ben Goldacre spends quite a bit of time debunking not just silly season stories but also flaws in the media coverage of health and medicine stories that could have serious public health repercussions. It was entirely unsurprising that he should see Samira’s tweets and dismiss them out of hand, given the PR industry’s history of producing bunkum formulae to promote their own brands.

Ben said:

BenGoldacre: .@SamiraAhmedC4 no, you just have to say “by reading this out, i have lost all respect for myself as a journalist”

Ben is followed by a lot of people who hold similar viewpoints to his and a pile-on ensued, with quite a few people being unpleasant to Samira.

Update 13:06: Gordon Rae has found the original press release from Nottingham University Business School.

The story seems to have originated from the the PA, who’d done a very shoddy job in covering it:

Resort’s winning formula hailed
Academics have claimed new Premiership heroes Blackpool as living proof of a formula predicting the resurgence of the fading Lancashire resort.

The equation is based on how different social classes interact to make or break a holiday resort.

Nottingham University Business School used the rise, fall and renaissance of Bath since its 18th-century heyday as the original basis for the theory. But now they claim Blackpool’s return to top-flight football shows the formula applies.

“Academics have claimed” is a classic fudge which often really means “We got sent a press release and can’t be bothered to actually find out any more about the story so we’re just going to make it fuzzy round the edges and hope no one notices”. It’s no wonder that people thought it was nonsense. It had all the signs.

It turns out that the story is actually based on a published paper:

The rise, fall and renaissance of the resort: a simple economic model
Author: Swann, G.M. Peter
Source: Tourism Economics, Volume 16, Number 1, March 2010, pp. 45-62(18)
Publisher: IP Publishing Ltd

When he found out, Ben apologised both on Twitter and on his own Posterous.

BenGoldacre: .@samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry!

Many of his followers who had been rude to Samira also apologised to her.

Now, normally, this little spat wouldn’t be worth blogging about. A disagreement between people on Twitter that resolves amicably is barely worth a second thought. It happens all the time.

But the idea that, after the friendly apology, it was all water under the bridge is a little undermined by Samira’s article in today’s Independent about it, which in my opinion not only sports a lot of unnecessary ad hom attacks, but also fails to draw the most important conclusions from this storm in a teacup.

The title, Samira Ahmed: Targeted by the ruthless Twittermob, sets a poor tone from the off. I’ve had a look through the Tweets and “ruthless Twittermob” it was not. Snarky, rude, inconsiderate and thoughtless group, yes. But ruthless mob?

Samira begins by explaining that she is new to Twitter and had got some advice from “old Twitter hands”:

1. Twitter works best as a two way networking tool – asking as much as telling. And 2. Scientists, and the writer Ben Goldacre in particular, can get a bit aggressive on it.

The first piece of advice is good. The second is both a sweeping generalisation in regards to scientists and an ad hom towards Ben.

I flagged this second sentence up on Twitter, and Samira told me that it had been added by the sub and that she was unhappy about it, so we’ll have to take the entire piece as an amalgam of Samira’s own writing and the Indy’s sub’s writing, as we have no way of telling them apart.

Update: Whist writing this, this sentence has been updated to: “2. The science writer Ben Goldacre can get a bit aggressive on it.”

But getting the first, now even sharper, ad hom against Ben in before the end of the first paragraph makes me wonder what the point of this piece is. If all is forgiven and everyone has apologised, why go to a national newspaper to drag everything over the coals again? Was this piece written to examine the phenomenon of herd-like behaviour online and the psychology that might explain it? Or to have a stab at Ben and by association, his newspaper, The Guardian?

The second para takes another swipe at Ben, about how he got “his science facts wrong and launch[ed] a personal attack on my journalistic integrity.” Ben commented before checking the facts, and then apologised when he realised the formula was real. He shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions like that, but I do feel Samira’s overstating her case a bit. Here are his tweets in order, so you can make up your own mind:

.@SamiraAhmedC4 no, you just have to say “by reading this out, i have lost all respect for myself as a journalist”     6:07 PM Aug 16th

any nerd bloggers who want to pre-mock C4 News, looks like theyre covering this bullshit    6:12 PM Aug 16th

.@SamiraAhmedC4 i’ve written a lot on this kind of lame non-journalism, some of it in this category here:     Mon 16 Aug 17:17:53 2010

.@SamiraAhmedC4 youre the one in a position to judge, all i can see is an “equation” with no terms defined. put press release online for us?     Mon 16 Aug 17:40:22 2010

.@alexbellos @samiraahmedC4 haha no, wait, for the first time in media history, this is actually a real formula!     Mon 16 Aug 17:46:54 2010

Reading on in the Indy article we find a yet another ad hom:

We all enjoy self-styled sheriffs like Goldacre roaming the web setting their posses on quack doctors. But journalists like me, who work for major news broadcasters, operate under a code of conduct broadly similar to our television content.

I’m not sure where to start on that one, other than if Ben’s comment was an attack on Samira’s journalistic integrity, that doesn’t make it ok for her to attack his.

The lessons Samira draws are that reputation is important, Twitter isn’t about broadcasting, and that it’s a good tool for finding new voices. That’s all fair. But she misses some other key lessons from her particular experience:

1. Understand the culture of the community you are entering
This is the first thing that I tell all my clients who want to use social media. It’s 20% tools, 80% people and if you don’t understand how people relate to each other in the context of the community you are trying to be a part of, you will make a mistake. Samira’s mistake was in not understanding that posting a formula and asking how to pronounce without providing either context or source could be misinterpreted.

The lesson from this should have been that if you ask for help with something scientific, provide a link to your source material first. That source material should be the academic paper if you have one or the press release if you don’t. If you’re writing a story based on a press release, be really, really careful what you say.

2. Twitter escalates the bad and the good, irrespective
Twitter does great things, spreading the word about important issues or worthy causes. But Twitter is made up of humans, and humans sometimes get things wrong. In those cases, bad words will spread just as far, just as fast. This is unfortunate, but it is pretty predictable.

The lesson here would be that when something goes bad, try to understand what happened and why, and then nip it in the bud as fast as possible. Samira failed to provide context and without context the formula looked like nonsense. Rather than asking Ben to DM or email, it might have been more effective for Samira to hunt down the original paper (which she should have had to hand anyway) and post the link to that on Twitter. Although Samira mentioned “Nott U biz school” on Twitter, it seems she didn’t link to the paper itself.

3. Everyone makes mistakes
On Twitter especially. Everyone, from @StephenFry on down, at some point Tweets something that they later regret. From public messages that should have been DMs to snarky comments that one later regrets, pretty much everyone says something daft on Twitter eventually.

This lesson’s easy. With great power comes great responsibility. Ben should understand that with 57,004 followers, he has great power. I understand his temptation to snark first and ask questions later, but some pre-snark research may well have changed his mind about what to Tweet and saved everyone some hassle.

Neither Ben nor Samira have covered themselves in glory here. And normally, I wouldn’t even bother covering this spat, if that had been all it was. But I get a little cross about these sorts of ‘Twittermob’ stories, because they remind me of the old school “The internet is full of axe-wielding murderers” stories that used to get published so often a decade ago (and still do by the red tops). That’s just wrong. They show a distinct lack of understanding of Twitter and social media in general and extrapolate too far from personal experience, emphasising the bad and generally ignoring that it’s well outweighed by the good. That has the potential to dissuade people from taking part in what can actually be a vibrant, supporting, intelligent, friendly place. And we’re all the poorer for that.

Update 22:40: Samira has emailed me to ask if I would post a full set of her own Tweets, which I am happy to do. I had to take the timestamps out from what Samira sent me as unfortunately they had gotten all mangled, but they are in reverse chronological order, and there are more after the jump.

@katebevan to quote my favourite fictional science officer the whole experience has been….. fascinating.

@BlakeCreedon Thankyou so much.

@Schroedinger99 Thankyou for the apology.

And all this before the story’s even aired. Latecomers start here:

@bengoldacre Gracious apology graciously accepted.

next time, eh?

Wish you’d all been here to back me complain over dropping story of Pope’s visit to Holocaust memorial in favour of Peter Andre’s divorce.

How about a story about scientists who don’t research properly before launching attacks on factchecking journalists?

davethelimey: So, how many of @bengoldacre’s (probably) well-intentioned followers will be apologising to @samiraahmedc4? Retweeted by you and 6 others

Duffed up on the Twitter street. Then picked up and dusted down. Could the rest of you say sorry too? And thanks for those who helped.

bengoldacre: .@samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry! Retweeted by you and 7 others

@rogerhighfield I think he’s stopped now.

@alexbellos For what it’s worth, I didn’t put it in the running order. I just spotted it and thought to ask.

Remember that bit in Wargames when Matthew Broderick’s friend tells the computer guy when he’s being too aggressive?You’re doing it now.

@kashfarooq savage is the word.

@rogerhighfield Rog, Rog. Where are you Roger???

@pauljakma Yup. That is true.

keepstherainoff: @samiraahmedc4 It’s fair to ask us to check if it’s science before having a go. Did they tell you what the letters stood for? Not in the PR  Retweeted by you

One question @bengoldacre If they hadn’t couched it as a maths formula, is there anything wrong in Nott U biz school analysing the issue?

It’s like being savaged by Mr Burns’ hounds. Thx to those of you who bothered to explain courteously why you say it’s not news.

@bengoldacre DM and i’ll give you email address.

@bengoldacre Why don’t you email me about why Nott Univ’s Blackpool formula is not real science before releasing the hounds?

Damn Was just about to say to @max_sang please, please no.. don’t set @bengoldacre on me.

It’s the formula to explain how Blackpool (like Bath before it) is becoming classier.

MATHS HELP! Do I need to say “comma” if I read out this formula tonight: p(h,r)=u(h,r)-pr=g(h, Zr)+f1[h, m(o,r)]+f2[h, m(o,r)]+E-pr.

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