13 September 2021

The rise of TikTok in misinformation

Ben Collins’s Twitter thread about how misinformation about medication to get worms out of horses has become the cause du jour for many.

Can’t stress how wild the ivermectin Facebook groups have become. So many people insisting to each other to never go to an ER, in part because they might not get ivermectin, but sometimes because they fear nurses are killing them on purpose “for the insurance money.” ... It’s just a constant stream of DIY vitamin therapies and new, seemingly random antiviral drugs every day — but not the vaccine.

This is distressing, but I wanted to home in on this comment in the thread.

The ivermectin Facebook groups also offer a window into how pervasive antivaxx COVID “treatment” videos are on TikTok.

The groups serve as a de facto aggregator for antivaxx TikTok, a space that is enormous but inherently unquantifiable to researchers.

When I last wrote about the dangers of recommendation algorithms (in pre-pandemic 2019), I focused on YouTube. TikTok existed then (it started in 2016), but it wasn’t included in Pew Research’s list of social media platforms until this year.

Graph showing use of social media platforms in the US. 81% use Youtube, 61% use Facebook. No other platform is used by more than 50% of Americans. 21% of Americans use TikTok.

Even today, TikTok isn’t even used by one in four Americans. It’s more like one in five. It’s impressive that it’s pulled close to Twitter, which has been around far longer. And also frightening that it is having this outsized effect that is leading people to try... anything

Everything is a miracle cure, or it isn't, but every drug is worth a shot. Except, of course, the thing that works: the vaccine. Anything pro-vaccine is instantly written off as “propaganda.”

There are lots of issues raised here that I can’t process all at once. But I think Collins’s comment that TikTok is unmeasurable for researchers strikes me at something important. Could the requirement for more data transparency in how TikTok selects what videos to show someone help? Not sure. 

But we may be at the start of an arms race between social media platforms using data to show things to viewers, and researchers trying to “break the code” to figure out just what the heck people are actually seeing.

Related posts

Recommendation algorithms are the biggest problem in science communication today

External links

Social Media Use in 2021 - Pew Research

Naming the animals in research papers

This is Bruce. 

Bruce, a kea with no upper beak, holding an object with his tongue and lower beak.

Bruce has been making the news rounds because of a new paper demonstrating that he uses pebbles to groom. Bruce is a kea, a parrot that normally has a large upper beak, which Bruce does not have. In the picture above, you can see him using his tongue and remaining lower beak to pick up an object.

What I want to talk about is not the tool use (although that is cool), but that I know this bird was given a name. Because I found this paper within days of finding another paper about an unusual bird: an Australian musk duck named Ripper. 

Ripper’s claim to fame was that he was able to imitate sounds, like creaking metal and even human voices. Ripper seems to have picked up the phrase, “You bloody fool” from humans around him. 

This is interesting because vocal learning is found in only a few lineages and hasn’t been documented in ducks before.

But what interested me in both papers is that the scientific papers repeated refer to these bird by the names that humans gave them. Not just once in the methods as an aside, but all the way through.

I can see the value of using a given name in news articles and blog posts like the one I’m writing. And maybe it makes scanning the paper a little easier. But the kea paper refers to “Bruce” 62 times; the duck paper refers to “Ripper” 40 times. The extensive referencing to these names in the journal articles gives me pause.

It’s been clear for a long time that the efforts to keep animals at arm’s length to avoid humanizing them (a position taken furthest, perhaps, by B.F. Skinner and other behaviourists in American psychology) is a lost cause. The approach of people like Jane Goodall (who named her chimps rather than just giving them numbers) has won. 

But these two approaches sit on opposite ends of a continuum. And quite often, there’s a pendulum swing in attitudes. I wonder if the pendulum has maybe swung a little too far towards our willingness to humanize animals in the scientific literature.

It’s easy to slip into teleology (assuming everything has a purpose) and anthropomorphism (thinking animals are like humans). And constantly referring to animals’ names throughout a paper seems to make that even easier. 

I’m not saying that the names we give animals should never be mentioned in papers. But maybe it could be once or twice instead of dozens of times. 

And hey, these animals didn’t get to pick their names. Maybe that duck was thinking, “I say ‘Bloody fool’, and they name me ‘Ripper’ on top of that? Could I be any more of a cliché Australian?)

A Twitter poll suggests I am not alone in being wary of this practice.


Bastos APM, Horváth K, Webb JL, Wood PM, Taylor AH. 2021. Self-care tooling innovation in a disabled kea (Nestor notabilis). Scientific Reports 11(1): 18035. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97086-w

ten Cate C, Fullagar PJ. 2021. Vocal imitations and production learning by Australian musk ducks (Biziura lobata). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 376(1836): 20200243. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0243

02 September 2021

Gender’s role in authorship disputes: Women try to prevent fights but still lose out

Black king and white queen chess pieces.
Sometimes, I hate being right.

Ni and colleagues have an important new paper on authorship conflicts that confirms something I sort of predicted back in 2018. That people with less professional and social power get hosed by authorship disputes. In 2018, I wrote, “loss of credit due to authorship disputes may be a little recognized factor driving underrepresented individuals out of scientific careers”.

Ni and colleagues confirmed that women get into more authorship disputes than men. This is despite women more often trying to negotiate authorship in advance. (To me, most surprising and depressing finding.)

To me, this supports the argument that we need more ways to help authors resolve disputes and support authors with less power. I suggested mediation and arbitration could be more common. I don’t care if people buy into that idea, but I hope that people can see that the status quo harms our efforts to create a more equitable scientific culture.

A caveat about the new paper. For some analyses, the paper guesses at gender by using an algorithm on names. This has problems. (Edit: Several authors tweeted a clarification for how this algorithm was used and that it was tangential to the main findings. Ni, LaRiviere, Sugimoto) This suggests journals should capture more data about authors than name (usually in English only), institution, and email. Or maybe that could become part of an ORCID profile. Actually, I like that idea more.

A logical follow up to this new paper would be to look at how authorship disputes shake out in other historically excluded groups. I’ll bet a dollar that white men consistently experience fewer authorship disputes than anyone else.

The Physics Today website has more analysis. (I was interviewed for this, but didn’t end up with any quotes in the article.) So too does Science magazine news.

Additional, 3 September 2021: I just want to emphasize why I think authorship disputes are so important for us to talk about.

There is a lot of research on gender differences in science. We know things women tend to get cited less than men, women tend to win fewer awards than men, women tend to be invited speakers less often then men.

But we know all these things because they are public.

It’s a major win for researchers have get access to journal records of submissions, because it’s something that is typically not disclosed and is very informative.

When we analyze citations and the like, we kind of assume that they reflect the work done. Maybe not perfectly, but reasonably.

Authorship disputes are kind of insidious because they are generally private, and affect what gets into the public record in the first place. It is an unrecognized and unacknowledged filter affecting people’s careers.


Ni C, Smith E, Yuan H, Larivière V, Sugimoto CR. 2021. The gendered nature of authorship. Science Advances 7(36): https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abe4639

Faulkes Z. 2018. Resolving authorship disputes by mediation and arbitration. Research Integrity and Peer Review 3: 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-018-0057-z

External links

Women in science face authorship disputes more often than men

Are women researchers shortchanged on authorship? New study highlights gender disparities

Pic from here.