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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

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