The Anatomy of a Scientific Gossip

The University of Birmingham has put out a press release today about new research by their computer scientists, on the topic of the spread of gossip about the Higgs via Twitter. This is all based on an arXiv paper, The Anatomy of a Scientific Gossip, and has been picked up by New Scientist,, and Aidan Randle-Conde.

Since I’ve been designated as one of the Best Physics Gossips on this topic:

If the Higgs boson was a dead celebrity, Woit would be your TMZ — first to the scene, first to break it, and have it be right.

I think I should perhaps comment on what this research actually shows. From what I can tell, it just provides evidence that Twitter is a worthless swamp full of people who have no idea what they are doing “re-tweeting” stale information to each other. Getting their information from tweets, according to these researchers things began with

Period I: Before the announcement on 2nd July, there were some rumors about the discovery of a Higgs-like boson at Tevatron;

and went on from there. They start looking at the data only from July 1 on.

Looking back at what actually happened, I started posting about the coming LHC results on June 17 (the Tevatron results were a side-show). On June 18th, Matt Strassler had the story, accusing me of ruining the CMS and ATLAS blind analyses, for top-secret reasons that could not be revealed. June 19th saw a New York Times story about this with a link to my blog entry and by June 20th Sean Carroll and Jennifer Ouellette were writing about #HiggsRumors being a “Trending Topic” on Twitter.

I suppose it’s true that a couple weeks later there were about a million tweets about this, but why would you conceivably want to look at any of them? While I was writing this blog posting, an incoming e-mail from Twitter popped up on my screen.

We’ve missed you on Twitter!

So much is happening right now on Twitter, and building a great timeline is the way to really enjoy the service. Get to Twitter and start building a timeline that reflects you and your interests, you’ll see how quickly Twitter becomes an invaluable part of your life.

I don’t think so…

Update: At his blog, Matt explains that he wasn’t accusing me of anything. It was CMS and ATLAS physicists who, by telling me me about the results after unblinding, were guilty of ruining the blinded analyses for still top-secret reasons.

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12 Responses to The Anatomy of a Scientific Gossip

  1. Stephen Brooks says:

    The tweets aren’t the content, they’re usually links to the content. I see Twitter like a personalised newswire: you follow people and sources that tend to flag up the interesting news. You’d not want to read 100 Higgs tweets, you’d follow the link to the CERN webcast, article or blog that just came out.

  2. twit says:

    You could nominate it for an IgNobel prize in the category of “Useless Research Spawned by the Higgs Boson”.

  3. Pingback: Ranga’s Blog » Blog Archive » Twitter — The “Worthless Swamp”

  4. Chris Oakley says:

    Twitter is for twits, by definition.

  5. srp says:

    The unkind might equate Twitter to the U.S. CB radio phenomenon of the 1970s, only with hipsters instead of truckers getting the ball rolling.

  6. P says:


    “first to the scene, first to break it, and have it be right.”

    In my experience, this was definitely true. The experimenters (Jester, Dorigo, etc) tended to be more tight-lipped, and I have always reading your blog on the hep-ex news. Keep up the rumor posting, as they come along!


  7. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks P,

    Actually, Jester is a theorist, not an experimentalist, and an excellent source of reliable gossip about the Higgs and other experimental news. I may have done a bit better than him on the Higgs, but he’s got far better sources and much better knowledge of what is going on in CMB and dark matter-related news (see his recent postings).

  8. Xezlec says:

    A worthless swamp if you consider informing the public worthless. The fact that that “stale” information was new enough to them that they felt compelled to repeat it shows that those tweets were useful to them. Twitter works just like word-of-mouth, except without as much distortion at every stage, so you may as well say that talking to people in person is worthless.

  9. David Nataf says:


    Have you ever used more than 140 characters when talking to people in person?

  10. twitter says:

    Twitter has done nothing to help human kind. The brilliant people working there could have been doing something useful instead. It is a shame.

  11. Robert Rehbock says:

    The capacity for anyone to publish and republish anything true or falseby essentially anonymous means can be both a blessing and a curse.
    I do not agree though with Strassler in either his original post or the subsequent exchanges. Unlike exposure of means of calculation or the setup of the experiment that could influence others behaviors, the data cannot be changed once the group gathered it. All that can by the other group be learned is that their results did or not agree with completed observations and work.
    as tosecrets – a secret is something known to one person. something known to two or more can be at best confidential. One may have little confidence that anything known by many can be kept off the Internet.

  12. tulpoeid says:

    I personally think another phenomenon is a lot more noteworthy and maybe research-worthy, from a social perspective; the fact that ~15k people all over the world knew about something that was red-hot press material, nobody was making them keep their mouths shut, but they nevertheless went on to do so for months only out of respect for their own and their colleagues’ work.
    Is this fact ever going to be properly acknowledged?

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