Elise Andrew: "There is a lot of pseudo-science and nonsense out there on the internet"

The founder of the hugely popular "I Fucking Love Science" Facebook group talks to Nicky Woolf.

Elise Andrew, 23, from Suffolk, graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Sheffield this year. Nine months ago she founded the Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science”, which last week passed two million “likes” on the social networking site and is still climbing. Her other three pages, “Earth Story”, “Evolution” and “The Universe” boast almost a further million "likes" between them.

Her posts are usually either amazing new photographs, news of new discoveries or theories or light-hearted re-posts of science-related cartoons or humour, or, occasionally, posts debunking what she describes as “pseudo-science”. Because of her incredible global audience, she is one of science's most potent advocates.

Here's my interview with Elise:

You've just passed two million “likes” - that's a greater reach than most big media organisations. How does it feel?
It's overwhelming. It's very overwhelming. I don't know how much you know about how it started, but I was just bored and interested; I never anticipated getting even a hundred, a thousand – two million is very scary!

Does it feel pressured?
It is, obviously. I haven't got any media or journalism training, [and] it is a lot of responsibility; if I show something inaccurate or wrong, it goes out to two million people. There is a lot of pressure involved. I live in fear of making a typo.

Has anything ever gone wrong?
I've never shown things that were inaccurate. Somebody tried to troll Reddit and faked a Neil Degrasse Tyson quote, and I shared it not realising it was a fake. With quotes it's much more difficult to track; it's something that happened to go online, and it's difficult to keep track of who said what and when. I'm using quotes less now.

Where do most of your posts come from? Do you use Reddit?
I don't actually use Reddit myself – but a lot of my fans do, and they post on the wall. A lot of it is news, and that comes from various different news sites. We get a lot of stuff posted on the wall, and I create a lot myself.

You recently said that your "this week in science" feature was your most shared.
Yeah. It got a mention on [popular American comedy podcast] the Joe Rogan Experience; and Richard Dawkins' website reposted it.

How did that feel?
Good! Really good, actually. The person who mentioned it on the Joe Rogan experience, [neuroscientest and science journalist Cara Santa Maria] is a hero of mine, so that was very exciting.

How did the idea come up?
I used to post all this stuff to my personal page, one day a friend of mine said “you're clogging up my news feed, you should make a page” – and I got a thousand "likes" in the first day.

Why do you think it has been so successful? Does the name have something to do with it?
I think the name is a big part of it. The nice thing about the name is that you can't ignore it, you have to go and look. A lot of people view science as dull or boring, and I think the stance we take, using humour, not taking ourselves too seriously... I think people enjoy that. I think it's quite refreshing.

How much time does it take to run the page?
It is a lot of time. It is kind of an obsession, to be honest, and I'm lucky that I work in social media and I got my job through [running the page], so they don't mind me doing it at work. It's hard to put a number of hours on it, because it's kind of constant in the background. But: a lot.

Where next?
We're looking at making a website at the moment; somewhere I can post longer articles. It's not that you don't have space on Facebook, but I think I'd lose people's attention. Hmm. People have been asking about merchandise for months and months, but I'm wary about it. Then there's the Science Channel thing. There's lots of things people want for the page, but at the moment it's something I do for fun. I don't want it to change direction too much, I don't want it to become something different. I think it's fun, and I think people learn along the way, because they enjoy it.

Has the site led to other things?
We're in the middle of talking to the Science Channel about a deal, that's very exciting. Not anything huge; a nine-month thing. Short educational videos, only online, testing the waters. Then maybe it will develop into more in the future. I got my job... I work for LabX Media doing their social media, and a whole bunch of pages for them, I got that job because of this page.

Do you feel you are a representative for good science, against bad?
It is difficult, because we get a lot of nonsense posted on our wall. All this stuff about about when the world's going to end, or that we are going into some "photonic belt"... I do feel the need to respond to that. I try to let it go, but after the fiftieth message it becomes very frustrating. I'm trying not to, because it's good not to give these people a platform... but there are times when it becomes very frustrating.

Like the picture you ridiculed the other day of the supposed planetary alignment over the pyramids?
Yes. People were posting it to my wall fifty million times a day. It is frustrating. There is a lot of pseudo-science and nonsense out there on the internet, and everyone feels the need to send it to me. And I'm sitting there thinking: it isn't real! Stop it!

Are you in a good position to debunk this sort of thing?
Yes. [Newspapers like] the Guardian are too, but the thing about social media is the virality; that kind of reach is incredible. But a lot of pseudo-science spreads online too. All the stuff about the Mayans: that spread online. Often, some people dress something up to make it sound scientific, use scientific words, call themselves doctor something-or-other, and then you look them up, and they're trying to make it sound like something it's not. There's this entire field that's adding the word “quantum” to everything. It doesn't even make sense in that context. The latest thing is people talking about the "photonic belt" that the earth is apparently going to pass through – it doesn't mean anything, but it sounds like science – "photons" – so people take it seriously.

Do you want to be debunking pseudo-science more?
I want to, but I think that's not as much fun. And it gives them a platform that they don't deserve. For example, I would love to spend all day talking about how idiotic creationism is; the idea that the world was created six thousand years ago, but people don't want to hear about it every day.

Do you get abuse?
We get a lot of commenting, there are flame-wars under the threads; we've had individuals commenting, but no group attacks. I think they expect to be called idiotic. If you're going to believe crazy things, people are going to laugh at you.

 

Elise Andrew's most recent "this week in science" feature. Photo: the “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook group

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

***

“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.