About that Facebook Mass Experiment…

Didn’t hear about it? “Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment” should give you a good start. 

If you know anything about the food industry, particularly processed and packaged foods, you know there are allowances for the presence of non-ingredients, such as dust, fecal matter (usually of vermin or insects), roach parts, rat hairs, and other unseemly bits. The allowances are very small and given as a matter of practicality: shutting down an entire farm and factory for point-oh-some-odd per cent cockroach parts is simply not cost effective, as the risk of possible damage from said parts is low.

Let’s say there’s a ubiquitous chocolate candy company that decides to test the limits of these allowances to see how it will affect their customers. Starting with a freshly cleaned facility, they produce a batch of their product drawn from a pristine crop, in which nothing except the listed ingredients is present, or at least as near to it as is possible. They make another batch of their product from an infested crop and deliberately include the maximum amount of roach parts and rat hairs that will pass inspection. They send each batch out into the world and record the results: who and how many customers were absent for work in the following days, went to the hospital, developed allergies, etc.

What they did was technically legal.

What Facebook did was technically legal. Passing through the legal loopholes of “Terms of Service” and the kind of manipulation that advertisers already practice, Facebook was within its legal rights as a company to decide what and how much of its product consumers could use. The event in short was this: Facebook manipulated the feeds of almost 700,000 users to restrict the emotional content exposure toward them to see if they later reflected the same emotions in their own posts. Essentially, they performed a psychological experiment without IRB approval, i.e., the ethics overview committees that ensure the safety and protection of those participants in the first place, and without informed consent, i.e., the “this is what we’re doing, this is what it could do to you, you have the right to decline, we’ll only lie about it if we feel it is absolutely necessary to the integrity of the study, and we’ll tell you if we’ve done so the minute the trials are over” speech. (See the article at the top.)

The ethics of such secret, unsupervised experimentation have already been called into question, so much that many are calling for government response. We already know that Facebook and similar social media use is linked to depression, a mental illness with real economic impact so that even the average taxpayer ought to feel offense. And because Facebook use alone is connected to depression, direct manipulation to increase such depression has horrible implications for vulnerable users who may not otherwise be aware of the medium’s effects. Despite being a plausible and disturbingly common scenario, we will likely never know the extent of the company’s damage to the population, as they have not released the raw data nor have they contacted individual users to inform them of their participation or which manipulation they received. This is unacceptable.


I haven’t been happy with Facebook in a very long time. I find the medium tedious to manage, and it reduces human interaction to popularity contests tallied in “likes” and “shares.” Like many unhappy users, I stayed because it was my most immediate and easiest network to long-distant connections. However, my disgust for the medium has reached the tipping point with this latest news. I will not be joining the very temporary 99 Days of Freedom campaign. Two weeks ago, I quit. I’m relieved to say I don’t miss it.

If you feel inclined to leave as well, the link to delete an account is here, and instructions are here.


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On Telling Your Child “Santa Claus is/n’t real.”

“If you teach children to believe in magic, then they grow into adults who believe in astrology and homeopathy.” —Sheldon Cooper

Another child at school must have told me that Santa wasn’t real, because it was after a school day, in the car with my mother who had just picked me up and was now pulling into our driveway, that I asked her the truth about St. Nick’s existence. She evaded the question. Then I knew.

The betrayal a child feels on learning his or her parents have been the direct perpetrators of a lie is flooring. There is first a period in which to grasp the reality of the lie and that the primary fabricator of one’s reality (i.e., the parent in question) is capable of it. Then comes the idea that the parent can’t be trusted in other things. What else is she lying about? The crew of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, love them though I do, have tried to justify this as a means of introducing skepticism in a child’s life. However, there is a vast difference between deliberately lying to your child and encouraging them to explore an uncertainty. For example, if your child comes home having learned that there is no such thing as a brontosaurus (whether he or she misunderstands what the teacher might have actually said), contrary a book you gifted or a conversation you shared, it is an opportunity to research the topic in which you would both discover that “Brontosaurus” is a depreciated name. If you were honestly ignorant of the change, then by admitting that ignorance and promising to use the proper name “Apatosaurus” instead, you have shown your child not only that you can be wrong, but how to handle correction with humility and a drive for education. By contrast, in telling your child a baldfaced lie one year and evading or sugarcoating it the next, your child learns that manipulating the gullible for one’s own pleasure is okay.

Let’s face it: the pleasure is the parents’ more than the child’s. The idea that parents shouldn’t deprive children their sense of wonderment is little more than another evasive excuse. A child will enjoy a toy no less if he or she thinks it’s from Mom or Dad than from Santa. A child does not feel resentment toward the parent who has been consistently honest. (My experience disinclines me to make the same claim for those who have not.) Most importantly, a child’s “wonderment” is—thankfully—not confined to the mythological fat man who only appears in malls after Thanksgiving. If we are skeptics, and if we are raising our children to be skeptics, then we are already introducing them to science and all the wonderment that comes with it. The sense of mystery, curiosity, and fascination are not lost in its exploration. Rather they are enhanced by it. Best of all, these forces do not disappear with the proverbial loss of innocence. The tinkering, toying, and drive to discover are better fuel for the inner child that persists through life than all the artificial staging of one day each out of a few short years.

If you still find it difficult not to allow your child to buy into the myth, particularly with all the pomp and circumstance put on by our culture, just imagine that you are preparing them for short intervals in their adult lives where they will be surrounded by other adults in unflattering costumes speaking of fiction with all the urgency and tenacity of a pressing political debate and singing ridiculous anthems off key: sci-fi and fantasy conventions.

Live long and prosper.

edit 01/16/2012: Added the quote up top, shared from a friend of mine.

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Brief: Hitchens’ Passing

Having been off the ‘net this week, I have only just learned of Hitchens’ passing, which occurred on mine and my husband’s anniversary and in my state. There was once a time when I would have imposed meaning over that, just as there was a time when I was certain a monster lurked in the dark space beneath my bed. Because of science-minded spokesmen like Hitchens, I am afraid of neither the dark, nor coincidence, nor uncertainty.

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Help! – Looking for Skeptical Women in Academia

(My connection to Twitter seems strangely gummed up at the moment, so forgive this short post, as a brief version was meant to be put directly there instead.)

I’m looking for active women in skepticism who are also working academics: a list of female skept-acad heroes, as it were. I am also open to women with higher education degrees who posses a profile in education (within or outside of academia). Harriet Hall (The Skep Doc), Rachael Dunlop (Dr. Rachie), and Carol Tavris come to mind immediately. Would you please comment, reply, or email me your recommendations? Thank you very much!

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Things That Make You Say “Duh!”

I’m really bad about keeping up-to-date with some of my blog feeds, particularly those that post multiple entries per day. I fall into the psychological trap of seeing how far behind I am, not wanting to face it, and getting even more behind, so that I end up rushing through all the entries at once in those few moments when I’m bursting with a conquer-all attitude. Some blogs actually lend themselves well to this. Pharyngula has some more elaborate posts, but most of PZ’s entries are short and sweet, cutting straight to the point or are just an image or video he felt worth sharing. Neuroscience News from ScienceDaily takes much more of my attention and time, and even those are little more than brief summaries of existing science articles, which, if I want to fully read, require a fight with my university’s interlibrary loan system and months of waiting for delivery. In order to (very loosely) catch up, I tend to breeze through the titles and just read those that look interesting at the moment.

There are a number of titles that I look at in awe of how pedestrian they sound. The titles have to be brief and clear, but they also tend to be boring, bland, and even vague. This is, sadly, typical of scientific studies. The original journal articles are often “The Effect of X on Y,” or some variation thereof. Lacking specificity or application in the title, many appear to state what we already know.

In my last scan of the titles to 75 unread posts, I found a number that made me stop and ask, “Didn’t we already know this?” or “Money was spend on this?” Granted—and I want to emphasize this—the text within may be far more thorough or enlightening than the title lets on. But I feel compelled to share the titles that make me say “Duh! I could have told you that!”:

  • Poor Cerebral Cortex Functions Leads to More Impulsive Behavior
  • Biggest Ever Study Shows No Link Between Mobile Phone Use and Tumors
  • Number of Facebook Friends Linked to Size of Brain Regions, Study Suggests
    Okay, the title alone was not enough to make this list, but in the first two lines of the article which show up on the feed, it says, “In a new study researchers also showed that the more Facebook friends a person has, the more ‘real-world’ friends they are more likely to have.” Why would that not be correlated? 
  • Future-Directed Therapy Helps Depression Patients Cultivate Optimistic Outlook
  • Babies and Toddlers Should Learn from Play, Not Screens
  • Minority Children Less Likely to Receive CT Scans Following Head Trauma
    I don’t like this one on my list. I don’t like it regardless. It’s here because of how terribly unsurprised I am by it. Can we please stop behaving in accordance with racist attitudes? :(
  • Blame ‘Faulty’ Frontal Lobe Function for Undying Optimism in Face of Reality
  • Timing is Crucial for Family Consent in Brain Dead Organ Donors

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