Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tweet flu

There was a minor kerfuffle recently about Twitter's role in spreading misinformation about swine flu. BBC Radio 4's Media Show contained a section in which media expert Evgeny Morozov discussed Twitter's role in the spreading of this misinformation. The evidence, as it turns out is incredibly scant. A few Tweets were cited on this programme, most of which sounded either like quotes from newspaper headlines or people being deliberately humerous (there is more on this here). 

Is Twitter being used to spread misinformation? Undoutedly yes, but that is not the important question: all media are used to spread lies as well as truth. The important question is how does Twitters truth to lies ratio compare to those of other media? And of course no one can answer this question, though I suspect it would turn out to be no different from the kind of discussions that you get on the bus. I suppose the speed with which tweets can proliferate from person to person could lead misinformation being spread more rapidly and potentially create a panic. 

But hey, who's panicking? According to an interview with, I think, the UK's Chief Medical Officer people don't seem to be panicking (in the UK at least): GP's phone lines are not being jammed by anxious callers; there has not (yet) been an overwhelming demand for face masks (although one of my PhD students saw someone today wearing one in Sheffield, but that could just be Sheffield).

Swine flu is not yet an epidemic, the spread of misinformation on Twitter is not yet an epidemic but I am starting to worry that the spread of scare stories about new media has reached epidemic proportions. 

From cancer to swine flu in just a few weeks.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why you don't need to keep close friends close

In The Godfather, Michael Coreleone apparently famously says "keep you friends close, and your enemies closer". I say 'apparently' because I've not seen any of The Godfather trilogy. No real reason, just other things to do. Happily, it turns out that the quote is apparently plagiarised from the Chinese general Sun-Tzu who said it about 400 BC. (Again is say 'apparently', because I just Googled it and people lie on the Internet, apparently).

Anyhow, it is a good quote and an interesting one. It suggests that one of the reasons for keeping people close to us is that we don't trust them. Is this the only reason why we wish to keep people close? I'm going to argue that it is, although I could be wrong. Take the titi monkey as described by Helena Cronin in a recent article on the battle of the sexes.  As she writes:

"Picture a pair a titi monkeys, husband and wife, in close embrace, their tails entwined, in sleep cuddled together, when awake always close preferring one another's company above that of all others."

It just seems so cute, so human, so much like being in love, so much like close friendships (with the possible exception in the latter case of cuddling together during sleep, but I might be displaying old fashioned attitudes here). She then goes on to explain that the reason for this behavior is that each is party is protecting its investment. The male is making sure that no other male reproduces with his mate whereas the female is making sure that her mate doesn't run off and shirk his childrearing responsibiltities (male titis happen to invest a lot of effort rearing the kids). Titi 'love' -- and why not call it that? -- is fundamentally based on mistrust.

Keeping friends close, then, could simply be a way of ensuring that they will return our investment in them (emotional, material, etc.) rather than their going off and giving it to someone else. The rather wonderful Carl Bergstrom has, in fact, proposed that when friends 'hang out' together apparently wasting time, they are in fact keeping each other close; each making sure that the other isn't off hanging out with others.

As relationships mature, of course, we come to trust our friends and partners and we give them more freedom. As Sting so rightly sang, if you love someone set them free (which, as it turns out, he plagiarised from American novelist Richard Bach). Why might increased emotional closeness lead to our giving our friends and partners more freedom? The economist Russell Hardin might have the answer: we trust someone to the extent that their interests encapsulate ours.  We believe that they would not betray us because betraying us would be to betray their own interests. A successful courtship -- whether that be romantic of becoming friends with someone -- is a process whereby we identify interests and maybe even 'grow together' in the sense that our interests become increasingly aligned and entwinend. The closer are the interests, the lower the likelihood that either party will defect on the other (see my earlier posts on homophily and trust).

That's not to say that we can ever trust anyone 100%. No matter how perfectly my interests might overlap with yours I'm still here in this body and you are still there in yours and that is a fundamental conflict of interests that can never be breached. But Michael Coreleone or Sun-Tzu or whoever it was was right: you do not need to keep your friends close, because they are always close you've chosen them because they have your interests at heart and, if you've done your job properly, you've planted in them the goal to act for you. Just like they have with you.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Academic journals are killing science

In an interview the astrophysicist and all round clever chap was asked a question that was outside the current scientific data. After Sagan repeatedly told this to the interviewer the interviewer asked him to give a gut answer. Sagan famously replied "but I prefer not to think with my gut."

I don't particularly like thinking with my gut either, but in this blog I am going to give my gut its voice. There is doubtless much research and argument relating to what I am going to say, but right now I'm too busy or lazy to look it up. So without further ado, I can hand you over to my esteemed colleague Mr Gut.

It can't just be me that is becoming increasingly frustrated with the whole process of submitting papers to academic journals. You faff about putting in the correct format (which always seems to be different for different journals, even those within the same topic area). You put the figures at the end, or in the text, you save the figures as a .tiff, or just as word files, you anonymise the paper (or not), etc. etc. Then you send it off (thankfully via email or upload now -- some things have improved) and then you wait. You wait until the editor finds some people to review the paper, gets agreement from potential reviewers that they are happy to do and then sends out copies (or more likely emails a link to a pdf) to the reviewers.

Sometime between 3 and 6 months after you originally submitted the article you get back the reviews and are told whether or not the paper is accepted, and if it is accepted what revisions are required. If it is accepted it might come out a year later.

So lets summarise. If all goes well it might take a minimum of a year between actually doing the research and getting the paper into print. If it all goes less well it can take much longer. For example myself and a colleague submitted a paper in 2001 (the research was done in 2000) to Cognitive Science. They rejected without review because it wasn't interdisciplinary enough. It then went off to Journal of Educational Psychology who required too many fundamental changes. We were then invited to submit it to a journal called Discource Processes by the editor himself. This we did in 2003. They wanted changes, we made the changes, they rejected the manuscript, we submitted it to International Journal of Human Computer Studies. They required revisions, we did them, they accepted, job done.

The paper was published in 2007, six years after we submitted it to the first journal and seven years after we did the experiments. Fortunately for us the paper was rather theoretical and wasn't something that dated, but can you imagine that it was a paper on social media? We would have had a paper on discussion lists and MUDs published in the age of Twitter and Facebook, potentially still relevant but hardly current.

Not all paper take this long of course, but even a two year gap between study and publication is unacceptable, this is probably one reason why many academics are turning to blogs and the like to get their ideas in the public domain. I am fine with this. If it is in an area I know well the absence of peer review causes me no problem at all. I can tell for myself whether the arguments and data are good or bad. But it is important for those who cannot do this that the article has independent verification of quality and it has to be independent. Anyone can get their academic chums to give their blog-paper the thumbs-up and therefore the specious patina of respectability.

So there must be a way of speeding up the review process whilst still offering quality control.

In Wikinomics the authors discuss the case of particle physicists who use upload their manuscript to a wiki which is then edited by collaborators and finally published, a process that takes weeks if not days to complete. This is particularly imporant in some of the hard sciences (high-energy physics, genetics, etc.) where things move so quickly, but I also think it is important in many other academic disciplines (such as social media). The question is how to movivate the 'reviewers'? They could be rewarded by becoming a named author on the paper but then there is the problem that people might develop a pro-publication bias to get a publication. But the motivation should really be that participating in the reviewing process allows you to submit your own articles to the journal: everyone would surely benefit from their getting their papers turned round in 1/10 or so of the time it would do normally so academics should be falling over themselves to obtain membership of this club by performing reviews.

Now that my gut has been given its head (as it were), the rational part of me (to committ that egregious Cartesian fallacy) would like to ask anyone reading this. What do you know about attempts to do this, especially in the non-physical sciences. Are there any problems (one can imagine all kinds of game theoretic problems occuring). But does it work? It certainly should.