In a scene of the film A River Runs Through It young Norman writes an essay for his father. His father reads it, marks it up some, and then says, `Now make it half as long.’ Deflated, Norman leaves but later returns with a new essay. The father reads it, marks it again, and says, `Again, half as long.’ Through repetition, the father is honing his son’s writing skills, with the end result being something worth keeping — or made pointedly in this exercise, not.
Doing science often echoes the scene above. There is a certainly a sense of joy and excitement when you get good results from an experiment: data that is precise, well-controlled, and is straightforwardly interpretable. In the flush of that, the natural impulse is a little self-congratulation and thinking about what’s next. But the actual common response though is: okay, do it again.
Why is that? Well, one of the foundations of the scientific method is that experiments must be repeatable. You can never publish a scientific paper or give a scientific presentation where you essentially say, “We only did this once, but it looks great!” because the results of a single unrepeated experiment might be artifactual. In science jargon, the number of times you do an experiment is usually termed n. An n of 1 is a nice start, but ultimately not good enough. n = 2 is better, though an n = 3 is generally preferred. Through repetition, you create results that you have more confidence in — that you could present to anyone with little worry about being incorrect.
I guess I’ve been thinking about “n of 1” a lot over the past month, ever since the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the way both news media and social media treated the event. Think back to all the things you saw in your twitter or facebook feeds or on Reddit that were hearsay or simply made up: the guy on the roof, the “Saudi national” that was in custody, that cell phone service had been shut down in Boston to prevent any other remote detonations (that never happened), the whole set of unexploded bombs (there weren’t any), the New York Post saying 12 people had died, the terrible incorrect accusation of Sunil Tripathi. All these things were reported, “shared”, and “re-tweeted” literally thousands and thousands of times.
In the face of actual news and tragedy, everyone seemed like they were in some sort of panicked rush to be the first to “share” information — whether they knew it to be true or not. The 48 hours after the event had to be the worst unwitting misinformation campaign in human history. I suppose that in a world where you can get to-the-second sports scores on your phone that we’ve reached the point where we expect to have instant-analysis news as well. Everything must be known immediately. How could we not know (within 10 minutes? an hour?) how many people were dead, how many injured, and whether there were any other devices? And instead of being content with gaps in our knowledge, we filled in the blanks with our best guesses (especially ones that fit our sociopolitical worldview) and who cares if they went viral? A few hours into that torrent of wrongness, I gave up. I turned off all my feeds. A couple times a day, I would read or watch an update. And you know what? I didn’t miss a thing — and I got better quality information because I wasn’t hanging on the latest “breaking news”.
What made me think about this and science is that so many people — journalists included — were essentially putting all their faith in an n of 1. It was more important to shout out something that might be correct quickly than it was to be patient and collect information, verify it, and report it.
The thing is: I like being connected. I love being able to be able to reach out to so many people that are in so many different places on the globe. But this was ugly — this thoughtless re-sharing of crap that no one bothered to check before they hit send. I know the Presidential election also had its share of falsehoods and misinformation willingly forwarded (which is also depressing), but this seemed different to me.
I guess what I’ve decided for myself is to turn things off more often — I mean, you don’t really need to know what’s trending ALL the time, do you? And that when I’m tempted to share something (especially if it’s news and super-especially if it’s politics) to remember to take a little extra time and verify the information and maybe even try and collect an “n of 2”.
I know…I know… that will take a little longer than a hair-trigger re-share, so what I post might seem a little “out of date”, but hopefully it won’t be just noise.