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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, 
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 
journalist.  

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/.  

Sincerely,

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/>



-- 

David Gibson

Assistant Professor

Department of Sociology

University of Pennsylvania

3718 Locust Walk

Philadelphia, PA 19104-6299

 

http://www.soc.upenn.edu/~gibsond/

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