We need to stop worrying and trust our robot researchers

The work of Francis Crick and James Watson gives us a vision of what's to come.

It’s now 60 years since the publication of the structure of DNA. As we celebrate the past, the work of Francis Crick and James Watson also gives us a vision of what’s to come. Their paper was not subjected to peer review, today’s gold standard for the validation of scientific research. Instead, it was discussed briefly over a lunch at the Athenaeum Club. In an editorial celebrating the anniversary, the journal Nature, which originally published the research, points out that this is “unthinkable now”.

However, peer review has always been somewhat patchy and it is becoming ever more difficult. This is the age of “big data”, in which scientists make their claims based on analysis of enormous amounts of information, often carried out by custom-written software. The peer review process, done on an unpaid, voluntary basis in researchers’ spare time, doesn’t have the capacity to go through all the data-analysis techniques. Reviewers have to rely on their intuition.

There are many instances of this leading science up the garden path but recently we were treated to a spectacular example in economics. In 2010, Harvard professors published what quickly became one of the most cited papers of the year. Simply put, it said that if your gross public debt is more than 90 per cent of your national income, you are going to struggle to achieve any economic growth.

Dozens of newspapers quoted the research, the Republican Party built its budget proposal on it and no small number of national leaders used it to justify their preferred policies. Which makes it all the more depressing that it has been unmasked as completely wrong.

The problem lay in poor data-handling. The researchers left out certain data points, gave questionable weight to parts of the data set and – most shocking of all – made a mistake in the programming of their Excel spreadsheet.

The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication. It was only when the researchers shared software and raw data with peers sceptical of the research that the errors came to light.

The era of big data in science will stand or fall on such openness and collaboration. It used to be that collaboration arose from the need to create data. Crick and Watson collaborated with Maurice Wilkins to gather the data they needed – from Rosalind Franklin’s desk drawer, without her knowledge or permission. That was what gave them their pivotal insight. However, as Mark R Abbott of Oregon State University puts it, “We are no longer data-limited but insight-limited.”

Gaining insights from the data flood will require a different kind of science from Crick’s and Watson’s and it may turn out to be one to which computers and laboratorybased robots are better suited than human beings. In another 60 years, we may well be looking back at an era when silicon scientists made the most significant discoveries.

A robot working in a lab at Aberystwyth University made the first useful computergenerated scientific contribution in 2009, in the field of yeast genomics. It came up with a hypothesis, performed experiments and reached a conclusion, then had its work published in the journal Science. Since then, computers have made further inroads. So far, most (not all) have been checked by human beings but that won’t be possible for long. Eventually, we’ll be taking their insights on trust and intuition stretched almost to breaking point – just as we did with Crick and Watson.

President Obama inspects a robot built in Virginia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Pepe Le Pen: Can the alt-right really "meme" Marine Le Pen to victory?

Underneath the irony, is there any truth in the claims that memes can swing an election? 

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered succinctly by the word “no”. As an addition, I’d like to suggest that if you add the word “meme” into the very same headline, you’ll most likely get a few four letter words in response as well.

Memes aren’t taken very seriously – which is fair enough, because they’re memes. But over the last year, viral images have been "weaponised" by various internet fringes to become, whether you like it or not, a political tool. “We actually elected a meme as president,” wrote a user on the forum 4Chan’s controversial /pol/ board after Donald Trump’s election win. This was an example of what 4Channers call (somewhat ironically) “meme magic”– creating memes that rise up out of the internet to have real-life consequences.

These same fringes of the alt-right are now trying to use meme magic to secure the victory of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections. And why wouldn’t they? Events in 2016 have made memes a valid political tool. When the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol in September last year, meme magic got real. Fast.

Enter Pepe Le Pen (or, in some circles, Le PenPe). Alt-right groups are now memifying the presidential hopeful to resemble Pepe the Frog. “They’re trying to get the LePenPe squad ready, 100 per cent,” an insider of a right-wing Facebook group told me. “We’re gonna meme Marine Le Pen into office,” wrote a user on the group.

It’s undeniable that at first glance all of this falls on the high end of the “completely ridiculous” scale. Even those on 4Chan argue about whether they’re being ironic or not. Yet though memes can’t take sole responsibility for securing Trump’s place as the 45th leader of the free world, they undoubtedly had a part to play. Firstly, the left’s mockery of Trump via memes gave him far too much attention in the early days of his campaign, and then the right kicked off what they now call “The Great Meme War” – the use of viral images to sway popular opinion.

Images are funny, but memes become potent when they have a message too. As Buzzfeed News reported last month, online chatrooms are forming where Americans can learn about European culture in order to create more effective memes. By using different templates and giving one another advice, Buzzfeed argued the “trolls [could] appear French without actually needing to speak French".

Indeed, memes with messages – however flippant – are undeniably the new propaganda poster. Think of the right-wingers pasting images of refugees and terrorists side-by-side, and left-wingers using images to claim children were handcuffed because of Trump's "Muslim ban". There are no statistics for the number of people who get their political views from viral images but it’s safe to say – judging by Likes and Shares alone – that they have an effect. This kind of propaganda poster doesn't even require sellotape to stick. 

Many of these memes might not make their way out of the groups that contain them (such as 4Chan's /pol/ and Reddit's r/Le_Pen). But that doesn't make them any less significant. In the past, ex-4Channers have spoken out about using the forum slowly made them more racist and sexist. The radicalisation of the vulnerable, in turn, effects the political world.

The other danger, of course, is the media taking these ironic memes too seriously. The declaration that Pepe was a "white supremacist" symbol gave alt-right meme-makers both legitimacy and something to laugh about. It is foolish to lend "Pepe Le Pens" status they do not deserve. Such a premature response has its own consequences - even if Le Pen doesn't win in May, the trolls do.

These are the real ways, then, that memes can sway an election. Of course, there is some survivorship bias at work here. 4Chan can claim they helped Trump to win because, well, Trump won. The same will happen with Le Pen. If she wins, they can claim responsibility, if not, they can go back to adding MS Paint swastikas to frogs.

So can Le Pen really be memed to victory? Screw you, Betteridge. The answer is “maybe”. 

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