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Something omitted from this discussion is what Sybil was actually
ridiculing. Here's her main slash:
"They spent three years or so building and running fiendish computer
algorithms that could analyse who had e-mailed whom and how often. The
stunning conclusion? Two people are more likely to strike up a
relationship if they go to the same college class or have a friend in
common. Brilliant, I think. Genius. It took years sorting though
countless messages to work that out?"
Long ago and far away, when in college, I found that I was more likely
to strike up a relationship with someone I was in class with, or with
whom we had a friend in common. Now, after the WWW, email, bluetooth,
wifi, and all the other technologic advances, I think it's kind of
interesting that this may still be true. I'm certainly out of my depth
here, but I would venture to say that whether these modern methods of
communication and interaction have made a fundamental difference in the
way human being relate to each other is an interesting sociological
question. (There's certainly been writing on both sides; some say Linux
couldn't have happened without the new technology.) But whatever the
answer, Sybil missed the question. I'm not sure the authors were
focused on this question in particular, but they were certainly delving
into the story.
In any event, the analogy with The Daily Show may be misplaced, because
those folks have an unerring ear for inanity. As Prof Watts reports,
Sybil has ear wax.
David Gibson wrote:
> ***** To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org *****
> 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, is fake.
> 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
> 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
> 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/.
> Duncan Watts
> Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
> 815 IAB
> Columbia University
> New York, NY 10027
> (212)854-4343 (phone)
> (212)854-8925 (fax)
> http://cdg.columbia.edu <http://cdg.columbia.edu/>
Richard Rothenberg, MD
Professor, Department of Medicine
Division of Infectious Disease
Emory University School of Medicine
Editor, Annals of Epidemiology
69 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive
Atlanta. GA 30303
E: [log in to unmask]
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