There should be consequences for the people who publish these things. People have a tendency to believe anything that someone in a lab coat says, especially if it supports their point of view or anecdotal experience. In many cases the people who do the research present it with few qualifications while not standing behind assumed implications. If someone publishes sensational and link baity findings they should say, unequivocally, "I'm willing to stake my reputation on the idea this trend is real and will continue" or "These are just data and I'm not willing to say that they have any bearing on reality".
Facebook may not have been right to dignify the initial post with a response, but I hope it works for the best. They say that some attention is better than no attention at all. It's important that this applies to self promotion and persona creation and not science. If somebody has something crazy to say, they should start a personal blog. Those who want to intentionally attract media attention should present themselves as such, instead of pretending to be doing any kind of meaningful experiment and hypothesis testing.
Many who are published deserve obscurity. And some who have obscurity deserve more funding. Can you give it to them?
Do not be so eager to deal out censorship; for even institutional review boards cannot see all ends.
Should there be consequences for people who publish buggy code on github? Because that situation is completely equivalent to what these phd students did. ArXiv isn't a repository of peer-reviewed accepted papers, it's just a repository of papers, just like how github is repository of code.
The people to blame here aren't the students themselves. They just wrote up a mildly interesting observation and put it up on a repository. The people to blame are journalists and internet dumbasses who used this paper to serve their own selfish ends.
> I can't tell you how many times someone has thrown a junk science article in my face, thinking that the issue in question was now settled.
There's no denying the existence of a lot of peer-reviewed junk science but sometimes there are perfectly good reasons why papers with faulty conclusions are accepted. The question addressed by the paper might be interesting, the experimental methodology might be interesting, the data sources used in the research might be interesting, or the editors/program committee might just want to highlight the lack of progress in an area that deserves more attention.
Publishing something that is completely fault-free isn't a desirable or even an achievable goal. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of scientific publishing. The goal of scientific publication is to advance the field by stimulating discussion at the boundaries of human knowledge. This can often be done even with "buggy" results. Think of it as the scientific equivalent of fail often, fail early and fail fast mantra that drives many startups.
I'm not dismissing your frustration though because the problem you've described is a real one. We aren't very good at communicating scientific results to laypersons. But unlike you, I don't have a glib solution to a problem I don't fully understand. Magazines like the communications of the ACM with accessible, professionally-edited articles written by experts in the field are probably one step in the right direction, but there is a lot more that needs to be done here.
But much more importantly, the flaw in your mental model is thinking that claims in published papers are expected to be correct. They aren't. The goal of a paper is to advance the field by stimulating discussion and new research. The unfortunate consequence of this is that laypersons can't directly use research papers as an authoritative source describing our current understanding of a subject.
The github analogy still holds up. Non-programmers shouldn't be downloading code off github, compiling and running it because they have no way of evaluating whether the code really does what it claims to do. They're probably better off getting applications from curated app stores. Accessible scientific publications written by recognized experts in the field are the equivalent of curated app stores. That is where laypersons should be looking to understand the state of the art in scientific knowledge.
If we were to continue the GitHub analogy, it would be great if ArXiv had a public "issue" list.
In HN-speak, Arxiv is like a Svtle blog.
As a Princeton alum, I'm a bit saddened at the course of events :(
On the OTHER hand, this was a non-peer reviewed thought experiment by some MAE students outside their area. It would be akin to me turning in an assignment for a class and the media ran with it saying "Princeton study..."
Unfortunately, readers are going to read this rebuttal as an attack on Princeton, which it really isn't; if anything it's only funny because of how strong Princeton really is.
4500 undergrads, 1500 graduate students, and hundreds of faculty, and you think that every little paper they give or study they conduct is a product of the whole in a meaningful sense?
The study was practically just a thought experiment by two grad students looking at something outside of their expertise. It _only_ got any attention, because it was about Facebook, and so the media saw a chance to sell more ads. For the same reason, they used the metaphor of pars pro toto as a rhetorical ploy, because Princeton vs. Facebook sells more ads. Like many among the unthinking masses, you got punked by it.
They submitted their paper to a well known, well regarded preprint service (arXiv), which is pretty normal for a number of fields.
Then, presumably, the paper would go to peer review. Where one would hope the reviewers would point out a few glaring flaws (like that an SIR model without either the creation of new susceptibles or waning immunity must go to 0 and they are 'dooming themselves to success').
The paper would get rejected, or heavily revised, and the world would keep spinning.
They didn't actually do anything wrong. If you want to blame someone, blame an overexcited media that grabbed something off a preprint server and ran with it, knowing full well arXiv has no 'Is this right' quality checks, and isn't peer reviewed.
> The paper would get rejected, or heavily revised, and the world would keep spinning.
Which means they did something wrong. Sure it might have been just a mistake, not quite the cardinal sin the GP makes it out to be, but you don't have to publish papers with flawed arguments on ArXiv.
It's one thing to write up a silly LaTeX PDF with wild speculations, put it on your webpage, but you don't need to submit every brainfart to ArXiv either, or do you?
Beyond that, the paper isn't pants-on-head crazy. The objections most people have to it can be solved by adding a single term to one of the equations, and some very straightforward sensitivity analysis.
Which is, you know, exactly the kind of thing pointed out in peer review.
And it is standard for authors to list their university affiliations on papers whatever the quality of the paper regardless of whether it is a pre-print or not. Look at every other paper on arXiv, they all have affiliations, and there is a ton of crap on arXiv that will never pass pre-review.
These students didn't do anything wrong in putting the paper online here. Now if they did a PR to the media to promote their work and mis-portrayed it as peer reviewed or authoritative, that is a different matter. But putting a pre-print on arVix with proper affiliations is just standard procedure these days.
The question you pose here isn't whether or not something is "good science", it's about who gets to decide what constitutes "good science" and "bad science".
Science has been able to handle itself quite well over the centuries since it has come into existence. Publishing something, in your name, as these authors have done, is an implicit declaration of what you phrased as "I'm willing to stake my reputation on the idea this trend is real and will continue".
The spirit of free inquiry, on which science is based, demands that we hold nothing sacred and immune from questions. Good science, almost by definition, requires "bad science".
Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
If you want to blame someone, blame an uncritical media.
Lab coats are there to bounde ideas off each other and sometimes write stupid things that will get corrected by other lab coats.
Consequences should be there for the people who find such articles and take them for a media spin. It's not the paper that is doing the damage, it's the news articles, like the Guardian story. It is the responsibility of a journalist to make sure they're not posting utter bullcrap to millions, and when they fail to do that, there, here should come consequences.
So what's been thrown in your face, the published paper or the out-of-breath news article with the click-bait headline?
Studies are only ever useful in aggregate, anyway. It's about metaanalysis, not just what any singular study says.
People do "research" like this all the time - you throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. Most of the stuff that ends up on the floor never receives any attention at all, so you don't hear about it on first-tier news sites. But when it's about Facebook, it goes viral, and suddenly is the subject of intense scrutiny. They didn't bring this to the UN for a call to action. They didn't start a company around it. They just applied an idea to some data and wrote it up. And now the entire Internet is making fun of some exaggerated version of their idea, summarized by Huffington Post hit-mongers.
Personally, I applaud these guys for putting in the work to test out a theory. If it's not correct, it will go in the bin with the other ten million papers with flawed theories, premises, methods, or other aspects that have been published in the last day or two.
Example: "The amount of time you spend sick with the flu is constant no matter how many of your friends ALSO contract the flu"
The medium matters, too. I'm all for people discussing crazy ideas and seeing what sticks, but when they wrote a paper about it and submitted it to arXiv.org ("Submissions to arXiv should conform to Cornell University academic standards."), they staked their reputation. Why wasn't this just a blog post?
As for why it's a paper and not a blog post - I think the conventions of academia are there to be questioned too. Why not form it into an abstract-methods-discussion format if that's what they think best suits it? Why does it have to be made into a more accessible and friendly blog format? Seems to me that open access will reduce the "scariness" of having a formal paper out there, as well as reduce the worth of same. Broadening access has that effect, and it looks like these guys are early adopters of a new, less formal process for describing the evaluation of theories like this one.
I guess what I'm asking is why this paper gets singled out for special derision when there are plenty of papers out there just as flawed (though no less "valid"). I think it's just a run-of-the-mill bit of science that, like many others, will simply be disproven in a positive way by experts. It seems ugly to submit it and its writers to such public pillorying.
I also do not think they are completely wrong. I think there is general consensus that in North America we have likely reached peak Facebook engagement -- unless there is a game changer. The question is fairly open at this point in time as to whether it stays steady, decreases slowly or fast from this point.
> I think there is general consensus that in North America we have likely reached peak Facebook engagement
I disagree. There are signs that US teens are decreasing engagement or maybe not even registering: http://istrategylabs.com/2014/01/3-million-teens-leave-faceb.... However, other age groups are apparently doing well, and there's no sign that 80% of users will leave by 2017.
On the whole, they continue to grow. The question is whether the teens are an early indicator that will apply to all demos/geos and that they will all decline, or if there's maturation in the product and that it better fits an older demo and the teens will grow into FB in later years. Or maybe something else.
Some people also don't want facebook to fail. If you go deep into their comment history, many of them have argued that facebook cannot be the next myspace.
It's been pointed out by a few other HNers, but this type of logic does a massive injustice and disservice to all the institution's undergraduate and graduate students, as well as its professors, who work hard to produce some of the highest-quality research in the world.
To say that this is a "Princeton study" is to present this as if it were endorsed or produced by the administration or some department or even a tenured professor. Instead, let's remind ourselves that this was a pre-peer reviewed paper posted on _arXiv_ by two PhD students (who have likely been at the university for a few years, tops). To paint this as the Princeton community getting together as a collective and putting forth their best attempt to "debunk" Facebook is just hilariously unfair.
Look, there's a thick anti-higher education slant on HN. People love referencing the higher education bubble and the 'demise' of the current university system or whatnot. But it'd be nice if we could keep things in perspective here and at least do better than the media, who can't wait to pounce on a Princeton vs. Facebook feud.
Note that all the press now is about how "Facebook" responded to the study. It was actually a single person, Mike, who posted a note to his personal wall with some help from friends.
Being a member of an institution means you represent the institution in all your actions. That's what being a member of an institution means.
Once again, a reminder to everyone that there are no peer review requirements for papers posted to arXiv. There is no evidence that the original paper was ever accepted by any journal or conference, and not surprisingly given the speculative nature of the study, the advisor of the two Ph.D.-candidate coauthors declined to place his name on the paper. So as an institution, Princeton is no more responsible for this paper than Obama is responsible for that drink machine being broken down the hallway (thanks Obama), even though it happens to be a drink machine affiliated with his country. In that regard, with all due respect towards Mr. Develin, I'm going to have to "debunk" "Debunking Princeton."
[Full disclosure: I am a Princeton alumnus.]
It should be obvious that the title itself is part of the self-parody. The whole thing is a giant exercise in reductio ad absurdum. In fact, the 'joke' only works based on Princeton's reputation as an excellent university, if that makes you feel any better.
[Full disclosure: I am a facebook employee]
Almost everything involving networks is a fad. Networks are an interesting mathematical structure, but on their own, they rarely enable one to build a compelling statistical model. E.g. people join Facebook for very complex social reasons, that go beyond local interactions between individuals. The image of Facebook has changed significantly since it started, and new products have entered the market, like snapchat and kik.
I'm also curious why Princeton's search volume seems to have declined. Obviously it doesn't mean Princeton is going to disappear, but what does it mean? Could be statistically insignificant, perhaps.
EDIT: Here are some comparisons:
Interesting how the initial spread seems to narrow.
Google trends represents share of search volume, not absolute volume . As the higher education bubble continues to grow, ivy league schools have not grown as fast as other schools, and there are new schools being created as well. All of this activity contributes to Princeton's (for example) share of search decrease within their sector, and overall.
It is really easy to find something that correlates with your data, when your data follows a simple trend. Now if princeton enrollment was going up and down a lot, and the google trends followed the same shape, that would be something.
I have seen this in most nerdy topics associated with early internet adoption in Western English speaking countries -- or at least that is my theory. Basically as other countries come online and late adopters come online, they do not search for the same types of topics earlier adopters looked for.
This trend for academic or technical topics decreasing as a percentage of Google trends is universal, see here:
I though it was quite generous of Facebook to resort to gentle mockery rather than shred its numerous stupidities.
It's a sad but true trend that people are too busy playing World of Warcraft to understand much less resist what is going on around them: automating of warfare, climate change, police militarization, sources of terrorism (including JSOC ("American Taliban") killing American citizens without a trial in countries without a declared war) and peak oil . That's a lot of heavy shit that that isn't being addressed, which defers consequences to be much more painful sooner or later. With commodities, often the consequences are spread out gradually (epic rise in cost of gasoline) whereas others are not so gradual.
That seems far more important than whether some pre-press study is important or not.
 California is having the worst drought in five decades. North Texas is having the worst drought in over a century. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/
You mean "not all linkbait is created equal?"
Wait did Facebook just start likewhoring themselves too?
(Oh, you don't have metrics to prove that? Is that because users are jumping ship?)
(Oh, you missed that? Is that because you didn't actually read the post?)
(Read the post, didn't miss it.)
Statistics is descriptive--it's not predictive. It tells you about the data you have. It doesn't tell you why the systems produced that data, and whether they might produce very different data under different conditions.
This only speaks more towards an argument that Facebook isn't being serious enough with its own statistics. Of all organizations Facebook should be the first to spot a trend especially with esteemed data scientists like Mr. Develin.
I think Facebook's models with linear time trends are actually much more believable than the original paper.
Meaning: people that can't type "facebook.com" on the address bar and type it into google then click?
So... based on that, we can assume people are getting more familiar with the internet maybe?
If the original article had been completely ridiculous, Facebook could've laughed it off and wouldn't have had to respond at all.
It's like if someone tells me I'm fat. Because I'm in good shape, I wouldn't react and just think the person is weird for telling me that. But if I was anywhere close to overweight, you'd see a strong reaction of some kind from me.
What the reaction is doesn't matter so much as the fact that there is a reaction.
However, the fact that they did so satirically sounds like when a politician says, "that's preposterous" instead of "that's false."
In addition, the data they use is pretty weak. The first chart shows that Princeton "crashed" or died between 2010 and 2011, since that's when that graph tanked. Since that data isn't good to make their Tu Quoque argument (that Princeton "will die") they are being satirical and ignore it. The second graph shows that more and more Non-Princeton articles are published. But this is due to more and more non-Princeton publications. Princeton has a fairly static amount of output, as the world's universities started outputing scholarly articles in English, you would expect Princeton's share to drop.
More interesting would be if its share of what it is trying to go for, Nobel Prize Laureates, publication in Science and Nature, whatever - were on the decline. This isn't addressed, just a global proportion of all scholarly articles: not Princeton's aim.
However, Facebook's goal is to get a majority of daily active users.
The second to last graph actually shows a pretty good case that larger institutions (by enrolment) correlate with search relevancy. But that is not a case study of an institution whose enrolment fell, which is what it would take to make a parallel case with the Princeton paper. They would have to pick an institution whose enrollment fell with its relevancy, and then show that Princeton is on the same track.
As it stands, it is not "longitudinal" but just a static cross-section of enrollment and mentions. Perhaps enrolment is static at all major institutions, regardless of search relevancy, and their enrollment remains full even if they become irrelevant?
This small switcheroo is a major one, and shows why the article has to be satirical.
Of course they did respond quickly :) It seems to indicate that Facebook did some research, but then found their results too weak to publish straight.