Data in the dock

While a few Italian physicists have been enjoying their time in the spotlight, some others have been less enthused about public attention for their interpretation of data. Especially as they are now on trial for manslaughter.

Late last month, researchers at the Gran Sasso laboratory declared that they had seen neutrinos travelling faster than light, violating a central tenet
of physics. Their reading of the data is controversial - perhaps more controversial than the interpretation of data by six experts assessing earthquake threats at nearby L'Aquila.

Unfortunately for the six earthquake scientists and engineers, they could now face 15 years in jail each. According to the prosecution, they provided "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information", resulting in an inadequately prepared population and 309 people dead when an earthquake struck L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.

No one is claiming that the experts should have predicted the earthquake. But, according to the prosecution, they played down the risks more than the information available merited. The claim is that they did not, as required, take into account the fragility of buildings and the number of people at risk. Given the scientific advice, the prosecutors allege, a jittery public became too relaxed.

The advice of the L'Aquila Six was motivated partly by discomfort over the way a retired technician from the Gran Sasso lab had been interpreting the release of radon gas from rocks in the L'Aquila region. Newspapers had been publishing Giampaolo Giuliani's alarming radon-based earthquake predictions. As a result, the local people were scared and confused; the official line was different - that a major earthquake event was unlikely.
The experts held a meeting to discuss the problem with officials, and then staged a press conference at which a Civil Protection Agency official, Bernardo de Bernardinis, told journalists that there was "no danger" and encouraged them to go and have a glass of wine.

Damage done

The six say that de Bernardinis, who also stands accused of manslaughter, misinterpreted their comments. Prosecutors argue that the experts were negligent nonetheless.

The case has caused outrage among scientists across the world, but it remains to be seen whether this reaction is justified. Raw data is inherently unreliable. The Gran Sasso neutrino researchers know this, which is why, after six months of checking and failing to find a flaw (and having their hand forced by an insider's blog post), they opened their doors and invited others to inspect their data. Even if an embarrassing mistake is found, it is unlikely to have an adverse effect on the image of science. The L'Aquila case will leave a much graver legacy.

The panel of experts no doubt made it clear to their employers that science is not able to forecast earthquakes reliably. The question that will now be addressed is whether they misrepresented what their abilities did enable them to do, and whether they fulfilled all the obligations placed on them.

The damage is done, however: the case has already set many scientists against offering any kind of official advice. In a world beset by problems that need scientific input, that can only be a bad thing.

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.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.