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article imageLearning from over-sharing on Twitter

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Feb 17, 2010 in Internet
Twitter is a fast and easy way to unleash short blurbs of one's wisdom on fans, but that does not make the contents true, and this may come back to haunt the author. I look at what one celebrity has to say about science.
I have a Twitter account since a while, but I hardly ever use it. The medium makes me uneasy, mainly because of message length restrictions which make it difficult to convey well-considered ideas.
Because I am working on a series of articles about products that are popular in the sector of alternative health, I was looking on the website of CP24, a major Toronto television station, to see what popular homeopath and alternologist Bryce Wylde had to say about one of them on his page.
I didn't find what I was looking for, but I did notice a Twitter feed at the bottom of the page and a link to his Twitter page. On that page, I found a tweet had been posted with a link to a video with an excerpt of a 2001 lecture at Princeton University by James Randi, a world-renowned expert on extraordinary claims, where he explained homoeopathy:
To this tweet, Wylde On Health responded with:
This is a screenshot of a message sent by Wylde On Health as a reply to a message by Twitterer Gavin...
This is a screenshot of a message sent by Wylde On Health as a reply to a message by Twitterer GavinMBarber.
This is known as an ad hominem attack: instead of attacking the arguments, Wylde On Health attacks the person making them. This reaction is both illogical and understandable.
It is illogical, because James Randi's exposé is essentially correct, as most of his information is taken directly from the work of Samuel Hahnemann (the man who dreamed up homoeopathy) himself, a work that is still the basis of homoeopathy today.
Wylde On Health's reaction is also understandable, because if one has no verifiable and scientific arguments to defeat a detractor, attacking the person is all that's left, except for embracing this person's message. Since Bryce Wylde is a promoter of homoeopathy, embracing Randi's message is not an option for him.
Bryce Wylde's tweet also has a link to a "Letter to the editor" by Lex Rutten, published in the 4th issue of "Homeopathy" in 2006. Because homoeopathy is not the subject of this article, I will not discuss it here. It is sufficient to say that the (dis)information in this letter is not doing the credibility of homoeopathy any good. Time permitting, I may dissect the letter in a future article.
To this tweet by Wylde On Health, Thamno replied:
This is a screenshot of a message sent by twitterer Thamno as a reply to a tweet by Wylde On Health.
This is a screenshot of a message sent by twitterer Thamno as a reply to a tweet by Wylde On Health.
Full disclosure: Thamno is the name of my own blog. In order to retain my objectivity, I will not discuss what drove me to write this and what it means, but I think that it is fairly obvious. Then, the following reaction came:
This is a screenshot of a message sent by Twitter user Wylde On Health in reply to one by Thamno.
This is a screenshot of a message sent by Twitter user Wylde On Health in reply to one by Thamno.
Magicians shouldn't be evaluating science? Maybe not, but since James Randi does not evaluate science, this is not applicable to him. What James Randi specializes in is in educating people in how to think critically and objectively, how not to be sucked in by wishful thinking, and he teaches them to rule out obvious and mundane explanations before accepting extraordinary claims.
This has made him one of the most respected critical thinkers in the world, and scientists all over the world time and again request his assistance. This is, for example, how Sir John Maddox, the late editor of Nature, one of the world's most respected science journals ended up requesting his assistance (and that of scientific fraud investigator Walter W. Stewart) in evaluating and eventually disproving extraordinary claims by the disgraced French researcher Jacques Benveniste.
Wylde On Health then continues with "he'd do better to offer a reward to someone who proves mechanism of tylenol!". The reward is referring to the one million US dollar prize the James Randi Educational Foundation is offering to any person who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability under satisfactory observing conditions. One example of such a test can be found here.
It is true that some of the mechanism through which Tylenol (acetaminophen, paracetamol) works is not known, but why should James Randi offer his prize to the discoverer of this mechanism? This is a matter of normal and uncontroversial scientific research.
Replying to Thamno's tweet was not the only response by Wylde On Health, he also blocked Thamno from following him:
In response to a comment by twitterer Thamno  Wylde On Health has blocked the user from following hi...
In response to a comment by twitterer Thamno, Wylde On Health has blocked the user from following him.
In response to a comment by twitterer Thamno  Wylde On Health has blocked the user from following hi...
In response to a comment by twitterer Thamno, Wylde On Health has blocked the user from following him.
Since this is not an opinion article, I will refrain from speculating as to the reasons of Wylde On Health to block Thamno. Since this exchange, a new tweet has appeared:
Wylde On Health claims that the world was flat 200 years ago.
Wylde On Health claims that the world was flat 200 years ago.
Since Thamno can no longer comment on the tweets by this user, allow me to spell out the answer here. Science is always tentative. Science is not "truth", it is the search for truth. In principle, anything and everything in science can always be questioned. However, there comes a time that certain scientific discoveries become so uncontroversial that it would be counter productive and downright perverse not to accept their truth.
For example, no sane scientist disputes gravity. While there is still controversy about a lot in physics, the fact of gravity isn't one of them. The heliocentric theory of our solar system that posits that the earth orbits the sun, and not the sun the earth, is open to refutation, but it seems obvious that this will never happen. The same is true for the earth's spherical nature. While it is true that the earth is not a perfect sphere, no sane scientist will still defend the flat earth theory.
And this brings us to the second part of the tweet by Wylde On Health: is it true that science thought that the earth was flat 200 years ago? It turns out that this is a fallacy. Humanity has known for a very long time that the earth is not flat. There is evidence that Aristotle knew the earth was spherical 2,300 years ago, and most high school students know that Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth around 2,200 years ago. (More extensive information and some interesting links can be found on Wikipedia). So, Wylde On Health is wrong by at least 2,000 years.
Science advances by allowing an open discussion, not by merely blocking critical opinion. Not everyone has this openness of mind and it seems that Wylde On Health is somewhat lacking in this department as well. But that is not the message here.
The message is that when you post something on Twitter, it does not necessarily go unnoticed. Someone may be reading it, and someone may be trying to verify your claims. Blocking visitors and deleting their posts and even your own will not necessarily make your mistakes go away.
Let this be a warning: think before you post -even on so fleeting a medium as Twitter- check your own claims, for if what you post is wrong, it may come back to bite you.
More about Homeopathy twitter, Cp24 bryce wylde, James randi homoeopathy
 
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