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

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