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Socnetters -- this is a truly outrageous situation. In the very least
beware of Helen Pearson.
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Nature's fake news
Date: Thu, 12 Jan 2006 11:02:25 -0500
From: Duncan Watts <[log in to unmask]>
To: Duncan Watts <[log in to unmask]>
Dear colleagues -- you might be surprised to learn that /Nature News/,
that bastion of reliable and informed science reporting, is now in
competition with the Daily Show.
But apparently it is. Starting this week, /Nature News /has begun
publishing an online column: "To be blunt: Looking for the point of
seemingly pointless research," authored by "Sybil", an apparent
reference to the namesake of multiple-personalty disorders. Like the
original Sybil story, however, the news, and the reporter who writes it,
The reporter is, in fact, Helen Pearson, a writer for /Nature/ who has
apparently won awards for science journalism in the past. Her intent,
however, is not to understand or explain the research she discusses, but
to ridicule and belittle it.
I'm embarrassed to say I was Ms. Pearson's first unsuspecting victim.
Last week my graduate student, Gueorgi Kossinets, and I published a
paper in /Science/, entitled "Empirical analysis of an evolving social
network". I won't burden you with the details here (you can find them
at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/311/5757/88 if you're
interested), but I'm very proud of the paper, as well as Kossinets'
herculean efforts in performing the required analysis.
So I was particularly pleased when Ms. Pearson called me last week,
expressing her interest in writing a story for /Nature's/ online news
site. Having read Philip Ball's careful and insightful reports for
years, I imagined that /Nature News/ would be a great opportunity for us
to have a substantive but accessible news story written about our work.
And after speaking with Ms. Pearson for about two hours on the phone,
over two consecutive days, sending her some additional reading material,
and recommending (at her request) a number of other social network
researchers she could talk to, I felt pretty confident that we would
have exactly that. She asked lots of questions, seemed intent on
understanding my responses, and generally acted like a real science
So imagine my surprise when monday morning I saw that our work had been
characterized as "bizarre" and "pointless" in a derisive fluff piece by
a fictional columnist. You can read it, which I recommend you do,
at http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060109/full/060109-1.html (don't
worry, it won't take long).
I'm not sure what offends me more: the snide, silly, and ignorant nature
of the column itself; or the weirdly unprofessional manner in which Ms.
Pearson conducted herself. If you actually read our paper, it should be
obvious that Sybil hasn't, nor has she paid attention to anything I said
or wrote (remember, we spoke for two /hours/, not two minutes). She also
somehow never got around to soliciting comments from anyone else, or
perhaps she just ignored them as well; either way, her opinions remain
uncontaminated by any actual expertise. That the NSF and the McDonnell
Foundation funded our work, and that /Science/ saw fit to publish it
were also both obviously beside the point.
So what was the point?
According to the news editor, Nicola Jones, Sybil's goal is "to peer
into science that, from its summary, press release or title, appears to
have arrived at a somewhat obvious conclusion. But, by interviewing the
authors of these works and delving more deeply into the science, we hope
to reveal the reasons why such questions are indeed worth investigating."
I don't know what /Science/ said in its press release, because I had
nothing to do with it. But if you can find the part where our questions
are revealed to be worthy, please let me know, because I seem to have
missed it. And even overlooking the disingenuous nature of Ms.
Pearson's enquiries, since when does not reading anything, or soliciting
third party opinions, qualify as "delving more deeply into the
science". Or even satisfy the basic standards of science journalism.
In any case, understanding the point of our work was clearly never
Sybil's intent, seeing as she overlooked or disparaged most of what I
told her anyway.
So maybe it wasn't meant to be serious, in which case presumably it
doesn't matter that it's sloppy, slanted, and sarcastic. Ms. Jones, at
least, seems to think I'm the one being unreasonable: the real
intention, she claims, is to "enlighten and amuse" (so much for "delving
deeply"). Why can't I just be a better sport about it?
Well, if you think that publicly belittling someone's work that you
haven't even bothered to read, while remaining anonymous yourself, is
somehow clever, then feel free to have a laugh at my expense. But
please spare a thought for my graduate student, whose first big paper
has now been tarnished by Ms. Pearson's cheap shot.
And if you don't think it's funny, please share your opinion with the
Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Dr. Philip Campbell <[log in to unmask]
<mailto:[log in to unmask]>>, who ought to know that while this kind of
silly nonsense might be OK on the Comedy Channel, it has no place in a
distinguished journal like /Nature/.
Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
New York, NY 10027
Department of Sociology
University of Pennsylvania
3718 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6299
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