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Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

Facebook are back in the news again, this time for conducting research without the consent of their users. Although maybe that is a false statement, users may well have signed those rights away without realizing too.

All Facebook did was to “deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012). Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads”. This is the explanation offered by the author of the report about the experiment. Read the full text here.

Simply speaking they wanted to adjust the type of information a user was exposed to to see if it effected their mood. So if a user receives lots of positive news, what will happen to them? What will they post about?

Some studies have suggested that lots of Facebook use tends to lead to people feeling bad about themselves. The logic is simple, all my friends post about how great their lives are and about the good side we might say. I who have a life that has both ups and downs are not exposed to the downs, so I feel that I am inadequate.

This sounds reasonable. I am not a Facebook user but the odd messages I get are rarely about arguing with partners, tax problems, getting locked out of the house, flat tyres, missed meetings or parking tickets. I presume Facebook users do not suffer from these issues, they always seem to be smiling.

So in order to test the hypothesis a little manipulation of the news feed. More positive or more negative words, and then look to see how the posts are effected. The theory above does not seem to hold water as a statistic however, although bearing in mind the methodology etc (and the conductor) I take the claims with a pinch of salt. More positive words tend to lead to more positive posts in response.

Hardly rocket science we might say.

I have a degree in sociology, an MA in Applied Social research and work in the field. Conducting experiments of this type is not allowed in professional circles, it is considered unethical, there is no informed consent, rights are infringed upon and the list goes on. What if somebody did something serious during the experiment?

Of course “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product”.

If readers are interested in looking at a few other fun experiments that might be considered ethically dubious I can offer a few. Check out the Stanley Milgram experiment, where people administered (False) electric shocks to other people who got the answers to their questions wrong. Yale University here, not a fringe department of Psychology. Researchers were investigating reactions to authority, and the results are very interesting, but you couldn’t do it today.

Or how about the so-called Monster study. The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Research Assistant Mary Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

Terrible as these experiments may sound, they were conducted in the name of science. Their results may have proved useful. Facebopok (along with 23andME and other commercial entities) are behaving in the way they are because they want to make more money, their interest is solely there (even if they dress it up as better user experience). And in the case of Facebook they have access to 1.3 billion users, and mandate to do whatever they like with them.

Media News Science

Self Healing Plastic

One of the problems with plastic is that it is very difficult to repair once damaged. When there is a hole in your plastic bucket you cannot generally mend it. But researchers in Spain have developed the world’s first self healing plastic.

Cutting the self healing plastic
Cutting the self healing plastic

Researchers at the CIDETEC Centre for Electrochemical Technologies in San Sebastian, Spain have developed a plastic that once broken can heal itself. All the user has to do is put the pieces together and leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours, and the material kind of re-molds itself. The repair is said to be 97% perfect within a couple of hours, and perfect 2 days later, and a Youtube video demonstrating the strength of the repair is really quite incredible.

Plastics are made up of polymers, a long chain of molecules that are connected through chemical bonds. Natural polymers are everywhere. In nature, many polymers heal themselves when broken or sliced. Think of your skin when you have a small cut — as the two sides of the cut bind back together, you’re witnessing a self-healing polymer in action.

Synthetic polymers are just as common. Scientists started creating nylon and synthetic rubber to make up for the shortage of silk and rubber during World War II. PVC, polyester and many forms of plastic soon followed.

Putting the pieces together
Putting the pieces together

The Spanish have developed the first human-made self-healing polymer to function without a catalyst, they report in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Materials Horizon. There are in fact other self healing plastics, but they require a catalyst to start the process (ultra violet light for example). Readers might know about self scratch repair paint, as advertised on TV. This paint is made from prawn shells, a fine example of a natural self healing material that uses the sun as catalyst.

The article states that “The idea behind this is to reconnect the chemical crosslinks which are broken when a material fractures, restoring the integrity of the material. This is expected to provide polymers with enhanced lifetime and resistance to fatigue”.

Testing the repair
Testing the repair

The researchers say this breakthrough will allow them to create stronger sealants, paints, adhesives and more. This could eventually lead to self-repairing pipes, bicycle tires and toys, among a million other possibilities.

Sounds great to me, and the less plastic we throw away the better.

News Science

Sequencing Baby DNA, a Project in Boston

Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.

Babies to have their DNA sequenced
Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.

There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?

This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.

These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.

I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:

In June of last year I wrote a post here on Technology Bloggers called Sequencing the Genome of Unborn Babies. I also raised a lot of similar ethical concerns in May of the same year in Home Genetic Testing, Pros and Cons.

On the Bassetti Foundation we find DNA Privacy Issues from January of this year, a series called Architectures for Life from 2012 and a review of a book called Go Ask Your Father, just for starters.

My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.

There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.

Gadgets News Technology

Calling While Driving

One of the problems with humanity is that we all believe that we can do things safely even if others tell us that they are not safe. People who drive fast do so because they are good drivers (so they tell us), people claim that they can drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the statistics prove otherwise, and even making a call or texting does not distract some super-drivers.

Governments take some action in some form or other to try and stop people doing these things, but it is selective in nature. Let us take texting while driving as an example. In some countries it is illegal to drive and text at the same time. In the USA it is allowed in some states and prohibited in others. In some states you can talk on the phone, in others not you need a hands-free system.

The law though seems to be selective. Last week research published in the Science journal demonstrates that it is not holding the phone to text or speak that is the problem, it is the conversation itself that causes the distraction.


A typical sight today
A typical sight today?

The research showed little or no difference between the rate of accidents when people are using a hands-free system and when they are physically holding the phone. The type of conversation does make a difference though, the more the driver has to concentrate on the subject matter or think before replying, the more chance there is of having a crash.

They also found that any type of interaction, even listening to the radio, effects reaction times and attention paid to the road. The radio is the least invasive because it does not require a response, but I wonder if listening to a news show or a discussion that you have to concentrate to follow causes more distraction, a logical line of thought would seem to imply so. Interestingly enough voice to text is the most dangerous type of technological interaction addressed.

So there are laws against texting, and not holding a phone (I must add not everywhere) but why not make speaking hands-free illegal too? And we should bear in mind that cars are ever more designed for connectivity, and that means distraction, maybe this should also be regulated.

Well that would require a change in business practices and take away personal freedom some might say, but we should remember that driving is not a right, it is a privilege that is governed by rules.

This is a serious piece of research that uses eye monitoring technology to measure distraction and driver awareness. The findings are clear and there is plenty of supporting data from other sources, but how would you feel about not being able to make a call at all though while driving?

At least your boss couldn’t call you while you were on your way home.

Business Science Technology

Home genetic testing, pros and cons

Recently I have been getting interested in home genetic testing. I have written a few articles about this matter, including a 3 part post on the Bassetti Foundation website about a conference that I attended a couple of weeks ago at Harvard University.

The speaker at the conference was Anne Wojcicki, CEO of the world’s largest commercial genetic company called 23andMe. They offer a kit that you spit into and send back, then they analyze 4 million variables and you check out the results online.

Recent technological advancements have brought the price down beyond belief. What cost $100 000 a few years ago and took months cost $1000 last year and now $300  and can be done while you wait.

What they call Next Generation Genetic Testing has meant that the analysis has become incredibly more intricate, where as a few years ago they analyzed a few thousand proteins, they can now do millions, so if you already had your genome sequenced a few years ago you might want to re-do it to gain ever more information.
A strand of genomeAs I said I went to this conference with the CEO from 23and Me. They are a relatively new company but have the majority of the market share in DNA genetic analysis. The CEO very much presented her organization in business terms, but continuously highlighted the research they conduct in looking for cures for new diseases. They have amassed an enormous database and can conduct statistical analysis on Gene mutations in a few hours that only a few years ago (or without them they argue) would take years.
So what do they actually provide you with for the money?

Results are viewed online, and consist in various types of analysis presented as bar charts, pie charts and statistics. So one line of interest is where your Genes come from, for example how much of you is from Africa, Asia, Europe or elsewhere. How much of you is Neanderthal.

Then we get into the interesting stuff about how your genes relate to your parents, who are you most like.

Carriers and sufferers of diseases learn about their mutations, so if you have or are carrying a genetic disorder this information is also presented.

Then we move onto risks for the future. What percentage rise in risk do you have in your genes for developing certain diseases? Maybe you have a 20% rise in risk of developing Alzheimer’s or getting breast cancer. Here we are moving out of the present and world of scientific analysis and into the world of risk.

A world of interesting information and probably very useful in many cases and just a bit of fun in others, but I would like to raise some issues about the above.

No doctors are involved in giving this information, an individual reads their results online, so one of my reservations is about interpretation. What does a 20% rise in risk of breast cancer mean? How does an individual react to such news? What can or will they do? Also in terms of a negative result what are the effects? I have reduced risk of contracting breast cancer so I skip my mammogram for a few years, after all I am at low risk.

And what if I discover that I have some kind of genetic disorder? Well should I tell my brothers? Maybe they have it too. Do I have the right to tell them? Or am I obliged to tell them? Do they have the right to know or indeed the right not to know?

And ancestry, what if I discover that my father is not the man my mother is married to?

Then as a concerned scientist I start thinking about the data, and discover in the contract I signed (without reading because it is 10 pages long) on the internet gives the company the rights to distribute my genetic information to other research organizations. OK all in a good cause but are they going to make the information non traceable? Is that even possible when such an amount of intricate information is involved? Probably not say the scientists at Harvard.

I am not saying that 23andMe are doing anything wrong at all, their database must be a great resource for science and particularly medicine, possible benefits should not be underestimated and I am sure that their hopes and aims are all pursued in good faith, but I wonder if such a database should not be independently regulated. At present these types of operations are practically unregulated in the US, and maybe this should not be the case. Technology is moving ahead at an incredible rate in this field and nobody can say what this material will reveal, to whom and for which purposes. I note on the video that Christopher linked on his post about Google that they are one of the company’s biggest investors, and as they are a corporation specialized in data collection that does not really surprise me.

Legislation has been passed in the US called GENA, whose aim is to protect individuals from unfair treatment from certain sectors on the grounds of genetic testing. It is not however definitive and as I say only covers specific areas of commerce such as health insurance and employment, but I am dubious about the power of the state to enact laws as quickly as needed. Lawmaking is a slow process in a fast moving world as the genetic testing debate has proved. Equally however we don’t want to slow down the pace of research due to regulation, as that too has serious consequences for individuals who might be looking for breakthroughs in certain treatments.

I fear though that if you pay for such a test and the results show a tendency towards getting a cancer of some sort, a health insurance company might accuse you of hiding or having access to information you should have disclosed, and make life difficult when it comes to paying for the health care you need or for your funeral (I don’t think life insurance is presently covered under the legislation).

Or that one day they might ask you to lick a stick when you go in to the broker to buy your holiday insurance or apply for a job. What do you think?


Good blogging practice – publishing reliable information

The web is massive bank of data, which is far too big to be regulated. Because the web can’t be regulated, it is very easy for false information to spread – fast.

If you are a blogger, it is really important that you publish information which is reliable and trustworthy. Don’t copy what the crowd says unless you know they are right, as this is not only misleading to your readers, but can also see you get penalties dished out from search engines. If you get a reputation for publishing unreliable content, the likelyhood is that your readership will fall.

When you publish something that you have found out elsewhere, you need to make sure that it is accurate and reliable, before you publish it.

How to Mythbust Rumours

When you find information, on the web, in order to ensure that it is reliable, it is always a good idea to check that it appears elsewhere. A general rule of thumb is to check that what you are reading is the same on 3 other sites, one of which is a highly reputable site.

So what is a reputable website?

Government Websites

There are a few way so to identify if a site is reputable or not. One way is to see if it is a government website. Any site which is government run is likely to be very reputable. Government websites usually end in their own unique domain name extension. If you live in the USA, government sites end in .gov or, in the UK, in France, for Canada, India’s extension is and the list goes on.

Major News Corporations

Government sites won’t always report things that you want to verify though, so there are other ways to tell a reputable sites. Big news websites like and will usually only publish information that is factual and accurate, so you can usually trust them.

The Guardian's logoThe information they publish is likely to be accurate, however it may not be impartial, so that is something to watch out for. Often news firms will take a political side, and therefore report news in a certain way – and may only publish part of a story.

High PageRank Sites

Google PageRank is calculated largely by the number of backlinks a page or site has. If a website has a very high PageRank (6+) then it is likely that it has a lot of other sites linking to it, most probably because it publishes a lot of high quality content, which people find useful and therefore link back to. High PageRank sites aren’t always trustworthy, but the higher up the spectrum of PageRank you go, the less likely it is that a site is going to be providing false information.

If a website is a PageRank 8, 9 0r 10, unless they have manipulated Google’s algorithm (through black hat SEO, which will only work for a short while, before Google catches them) then the site is likely to be extremely reliable and reputable, therefore you should be able to trust the information, data and facts that they produce.

1,000,000 to 1

If 1 highly reputable site is saying one thing, but 1 million other (not reputable) sites are saying another another, then the chances are that the 1,000,000 sites are just recycling the same false information, creating a massive bank of false information. This is one reason why you should be really careful who you trust on the web, and also make sure that you verify information with at least one reputable site. Be careful who you trust.

Academic Research

Verifying information with at least 3 sources, one of which is reputable is something which is also advised in academic research. Therefore if you use the same standards on your blog, you can’t go wrong! Search engines and readers alike will respect you for providing good quality, highly reputable content.

Technology Bloggers Policy

Every time I write an article and quote information/statistics etc. I always try to follow the 3 and 1 rule: check the information appears on 3 other sites, at least one of which is ‘reputable’. This means that everything I write should be reputable.

The post guidelines ask all writers to ensure they use the 3 and 1 rule, however we cannot guarantee that all writers do. In our Privacy Policy, we state how we try to ensure all content is true and factual, however it is always advisable to independently verify information for yourself.

Do You Verify Your Content?

Do you always try to ensure that you use the 3 and 1 rule when publishing information? That not only applies to blog posts, but also to comments. If not what measures do you use, or don’t you think it really matters?