Using Twitter makes you cleverer

Dec 8, 2011 by

Using Twitter makes you cleverer

Facts and figures speak volumes. They prove and they disprove. They are both the weight behind an argument and the wedge between substance and conjecture. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a fact or figure is worth ten thousand, for whilst a picture can be disingenuous and lifted from context, a fact cannot. Or can it?

As a journalist and writer, I’m someone who relies upon a broad spectrum of supporting evidence to illustrate a point, and in order to persuade my readers that the argument I present is worthy of their time. Eyewitness accounts and testimonies- whilst subjective and unreliable- are emotive at their base. Facts and figures, on the other hand, are typically interpreted as neutral. Indeed, there exists a popular perception that statistical correlation is conclusive, and that such supporting evidence is, by nature, a trump card of sorts when balanced against opposing views. However, this is not always the case.

There exists a marked difference between correlation and causality, and I’ve often noted that the tabloid press frequently finds itself in an epistemological quagmire. I’d like to give their hacks the benefit of the doubt, and assume that as writers, their deftness at handling quantitative data may be somewhat clumsy. Sadly however, my experience tells me this is not the case, and that unscrupulous journalists will frequently twist or distort data to support an editorial agenda.

What bothered me today was an article forwarded to me by a former colleague. It was printed some weeks ago in the Daily Mail; arguably Britains most nonsensical right-wing propaganda rag. In the article, we are told that a girl, aged 13, has been left in a coma following a ‘severe reaction to cervical cancer jabs’. The article then proceeds to bind this argument together with ‘scientific data’ to prove a link between cervical cancer jabs and chronic fatigue syndrome. These are, of course, serious accusations which no doubt hold the potential to influence important decisions taken by their readership. However, in this instance, the causal link is fraudulent in its entirety. Closer inspection of the figures and source data reveal this quite quickly. In fact (excuse the pun), the rate of chronic fatigue syndrome is no higher amongst recipients of the jab than it is amongst unvaccinated members of the public.

The moral of the story? Well, there isn’t one. But did you know that using Twitter makes you more intelligent?

Statistics are not independent of context, and they can just as easily be manipulated in support of an idea or agenda.

Image: © Mats Persson/ istockphoto

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