Worst Science Article of The Week: Twitter Will Make You Eeevil

By Melissa Lafsky | April 14, 2009 5:48 pm

twitterQuick! Grab the latest scientific study that may have something remotely to do with Twitter! Run it with a “Twitter Will Destroy Humanity!” headline! With a graphic by Hieronymus Bosch!

Here’s how it all started: A University of Southern California study, which is slated for publication next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition, has come to the reported conclusion that Twitter can/might/will turn humanity into a teeming mass of barbarians who engage in all matter of mass killings, wanton torturing, rape, and other atrocities. Or something.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher and co-author on the study, has been quoted far and wide across the Internets with such gems as:

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.”

Possibly—though “fully experiencing emotions” about others’ psychological states is not something that humans were ever particularly good at. Plus “implications for our morality” can be drawn from just about anywhere, on the Internet or no.

Not to mention the small matter, which some reports fail to mention, that the study’s methodology had absolutely nothing to do with Twitter.

Rather, it focused on how volunteers responded to stories meant to stimulate admiration (for a virtue or skill) versus compassion (for physical or social pain). According to brain scans, the subjects responded instantly to people in physical pain, but took 6 to 8 seconds to respond to virtue or social pain.

Somehow, this finding has grave implications for Twitter, since, according to Immordino-Yang:

For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.

Uhh, seriously? So does that mean pre-Internet humanity, with its countless hours of reflection, was also blessed with impeccable morality?

Of course, there’s also USC sociologist Manuel Castells, who even admitted that “the study raised more concerns over fast-moving TV than the online environment.” So why is Twitter, or the rest of the Internet, even part of this discussion?

The bottom line is that making sweeping generalizations about the moral implications of getting news online is pointless at best, ludicrous at worst. Chances are, if you saw a tweet along the lines of, say, “ENTIRE JAPANESE CITY WIPED OUT BY NUCLEAR EXPLOSION,” you might take more than a moment to think about it. Not to mention the fact that having a means of finding out about human suffering, even if it’s “too quick,” is better than never learning about it at all.

Discoblog: Worst Science Article of the Week

Image: Courtesy of Twitter.com

MORE ABOUT: technology, Twitter
  • S-M-R-T

    How in the hell did this even get any kind of funding, whatsoever?

    Why is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang still employed?

    Certainly this is doing nothing for stereotypes of Southern California.


  • not fooled

    @ S-M-R-T :”Why is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang still employed?”

    I think you’re missing the point. Immordino-Yang said nothing about Twitter, Facebook, or any other social networking site. The study she conducted was well-designed (they don’t just turn out half-assed work under Antonio Damasio–look him up) and her findings aren’t in question here–it’s clear from her data that the time delay described is present.
    I’m assuming that what you’re taking offense to is the interpretation that this somehow means Twitter is contributing to the downfall of western civilization–an interpretation added post-hoc by the authors of the articles cited by this post.
    In that respect, this post could have been a little more clear in stressing its indictment was not of the original study, but of the hack reporters who felt compelled to make leaps in logic and tie the study to buzz words to get their articles noticed.

  • S-M-R-T

    @not fooled: Regardless of how well designed a study may be, quality of design does not validate the study. Just because a study on beer and promiscuity rates among college co-eds is very well designed does not mean it should be done. (But I’m now accepting funding for the study…)

    I’m amazed at the waste in academia; my tuition was exorbitant at the time and it’s only rising faster and faster. Primarily I blame the dead-weight in administration, but I also blame the “researchers” and their pet projects that cost more than they contribute.

    I also don’t have a problem with this article’s interpretation (although I agree about hack writers).

    Basically I’m against funding “research” that has a high “well, DUH…” quotient.

  • scott

    talk about too fast. Everyone’s getting all in a huff over a report that isn’t even published yet. And this is a comment on a story on a blog on a report. Gads.

  • Larry D. Gillihan

    I don’t even know what “tweeter” is, and from what I’m hearing, I don’t want to know.

  • http://neurocritic.blogspot.com/2009/04/neurology-of-twitter.html The Neurocritic

    I think it’s the worst set of science articles of the year! That said, despite its “Is Twitter evil?” title, the most complete report on the actual experiment that I’ve seen thus far was at MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.

    Part of the problem is the lengthy embargo policy at PNAS. The press can see the paper a week before the rest of us. However, I doubt that any of them read beyond the ridiculous USC press release… so the laziness of reporters, the sensationalism of their editors, and Carl Marziali at USC are also to blame. The USC press office has even engaged in revisionist reporting, removing “Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass” from the beginning of the PR and deleting all subsequent mentions of Twitter.

    I really hope PNAS gets burned by the outlandish press coverage…serves them right for their silly embargo policy.

  • http://johntaylorsblog.com John Taylor

    What an excellent blog, I’ve added your feed to my RSS reader. :-)

  • http://lolmoney.org makemoney

    Very informative! Great post!

  • Pingback: Bad Study of the Week: A Social Life Predisposes Women to Rape | Discoblog | Discover Magazine()

  • Carlos Anriquez

    Melissa: did you read the study or you’re talking about what somebody told you? Please answer.


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