To borrow a phrase from Forrest Gump, Twitter is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.
For example, there’s a particular troll on Twitter who automatically dislikes anything I tweet or write here on the blog – and yet he follows me on Twitter and reads the blog, presumably as some form of penance. Among other odd attacks, he once took to lecturing me about my writing style. I replied that I don’t take writing advice from a guy with a blog hardly anyone reads and who can barely scare up a following on Twitter. At that point, he accused me of writing controversial tweets simply to gin up retweets.
Oh, if only I were blessed with such powers of prediction. I have no idea which tweets are going to generate a buzz. I’m reminded of an interview I read years ago with songwriter Paul Simon. He explained that he’s written songs he was convinced were sure-fire hits, only to see them barely dent the charts, while other songs he considered far from his best became chart-toppers. Nobody can predict what’s going to be popular, he explained.
When I tweeted a link to my post about the Harvard study on push-ups and CVD risk, I honestly didn’t expect much beyond the usual number of replies, retweets, etc. Wrong. Lots and lots of people wanted to comment on or argue about that one.
I’m all in favor of Twitter debates, of course. I just wish people who apparently can’t comprehend plain English would remain on the sidelines. As the number of arguments grew, someone with a sense of humor commented that sooner or later, people on Twitter would be accusing me of saying I’m against push-ups.
Yes, that would fit the usual Twitter pattern. Fortunately, it wasn’t the Full Twitter Pattern. To be the Full Twitter Pattern, it would have to go something like this:
- A few people post tweets accusing me of being against push-ups.
- Other people chime in to demand I apologize for my anti-push-up stance.
- Still other people who can do a lot of push-ups decide I’m belittling them and offer to meet me anytime, anywhere and kick my ass because I’m obviously a wimp who can’t do 40 push-ups.
- Someone eventually tweets that Donald Trump doesn’t do push-ups either.
- Someone else then tweets that she saw me wearing a MAGA hat while working outdoors on the farm.
- Celebrities and celebrity wannabes, anxious to demonstrate their moral superiority, tweet that my anti-push-ups attitude is obviously racist, and I don’t do push-ups as a way to flaunt my white privilege.
- Someone else then points out that the Harvard study’s leader author is named Justin Yang, and I’m clearly belittling the study and telling people not to do push-ups because I don’t like Asians.
- Reza Aslan posts my picture and tweets Honest question: have you ever seen a more punchable face?
- Kathy Griffin tweets (in all caps) YOU KNOW THIS RACIST MOTHERF@#$%*R WOULDN’T HESITATE TO DOXX ON YOU, SO SOMEBODY POST HIS REAL NAME AND ADDRESS! – presumably so the forces of good could show up at my door to express their goodness by engaging in physical violence and/or making life a living hell for my family.
- CNN and The Washington Post jump into the fray with articles about a growing movement of extremists who are racist, sexist, homophobic and opposed to push-ups, identifying me as a leader of the movement.
- After people blessed with both consciences and brains post clips of my previous tweets to prove I’ve never actually stated any opposition to push-ups, CNN and the Washington Post write new articles explaining that the situation is “more nuanced” than originally believed.
- Finally, CNN, the Washington Post and other fine examples of journalist ethics write commentary explaining that while the story about my racist, sexist, anti-push-up tirade may not have been factually true, their rush to judgment was entirely understandable — because the real issue here is that people believed the story could have been true, which is a sad, sad, sad indication of how many Americans have become racist, sexist, homophobic and opposed to push-ups in just the past three years.
The Full Twitter Pattern didn’t happen, of course. But most of us who post on Twitter eventually run into what I’m now calling the Four Types of Twitter Dumb:
1) Those who argue about something you didn’t actually say – but they’re convinced you did for no apparent reason.
Now and then I reply to arguments with something like I’m sorry you struggle with reading and comprehension. That’s because Twitter Dumb will argue vigorously against a point you never made – and continue arguing against the point you never made even after you explain you never made it.
Let’s suppose you post a tweet about the benefits of eating meat. The odds are pretty good Twitter Dumb will show up and demand to know why you’re opposed to eating vegetables.
So you reply that you’ve never opposed eating vegetables. Twitter Dumb will never, ever admit making a mistake (see type #4), so he’ll reply that you’re obviously opposed to eating vegetables. After shaking your head and wondering how this opinion ever found its way into Twitter Dumb’s brain, you ask Twitter Dumb to please cite the post or tweet where you expressed this obvious opposition to vegetables.
Twitter Dumb will, of course, ignore that direct challenge – Twitter Dumb routinely ignores direct challenges that would prove him wrong. Instead, Twitter Dumb will begin firing off tweet after tweet with links to articles about the benefits of eating vegetables … thus continuing to argue against a position you never took. If you are silly enough to reply, the stream of pro-vegetable tweets will go on for days.
After I tweeted a link to my Diet, Health and the Wisdom of Crowds speech, Twitter Dumb showed up to argue vigorously against my “anti-vaccination views.” I explained to Twitter Dumb that I’ve never taken a stance on vaccinations either way. Twitter Dumb replied that I gave that speech at a Weston A. Price event, so therefore I’m obviously an anti-vaxxer. Twitter Dumb then continued to berate me for all the children who were going to get sick and die because of my endorsement of anti-vaxxers. Recognizing what I was dealing with, I ended blocking Twitter Dumb in that case.
When I tweeted about the Harvard push-ups study, a surprising number of people replied that by gosh, my criticism was unfounded because Harvard never actually claimed push-ups prevent heart disease. That true. It’s also true that I never claimed that Harvard claimed push-ups prevent heart disease. Harvard did claim, however, that they’d demonstrated the number of push-ups men can perform is a useful assessment of CVD risk – which simply isn’t true if you look at their data.
I explained this to Twitter Dumb, who nonetheless continued to insist I’d unfairly criticized the study … because by gosh, Harvard had never claimed push-ups prevent heart disease, so why the heck was I criticizing them?
2) Those who argue that nobody should listen to you if you don’t have an impressive-sounding title.
Anytime I criticize a study, the odds are pretty good Twitter Dumb will show up and tweet something like, Oh yeah, I’m really going listen to a comedian instead of doctors and PhDs. Amazingly, every time Twitter Dumb makes this comment, he thinks he’s making it for the first time and is being rip-roaringly clever.
Of course, I’m not “just” a comedian. I’m also a software engineer who deals with math and logic for a living. Observational studies put out by Harvard aren’t sacred scrolls that can only be decoded by wizards with the magic keys. Anyone with access to the study can review the numbers and see if they support the researchers’ conclusions.
As I’ve tried to explain to Twitter Dumb many times, math and logic don’t care about the title of the person who employs them. My degree is in journalism, which means according to the Title Is Everything crowd, I shouldn’t be working as a programmer. And yet I am — because my employers care about my actual abilities, not my college degree.
So when Twitter Dumb points out that I’m “just” a comedian, I reply that if my critique is wrong, he can easily prove it by citing the mathematical or logical mistake in my analysis instead of comparing titles.
Twitter Dumb never accepts this challenge. Instead, Twitter Dumb offers replies like this (which I’ve quoted directly): That title usually comes with LOTS of applicable education that was earned.
Ah, I see. A Harvard PhD has LOTS of applicable education that was earned, and therefore his conclusions must be correct even if actual data says otherwise.
I’ve often wondered where this desire to simply believe people with impressive titles comes from. I can only conclude that it’s a form of insecurity. Some people simply want the authorities to be correct … because if the authorities can be wrong, we have to accept the burden of thinking for ourselves.
Unfortunately, history tells us authorities are indeed often wrong, and sometimes intentionally dishonest. As I’ve mentioned before, my college physics professor told us to learn math no matter what our career plans were, because “math is how you know when they’re lying to you.” Granted, I was in his class more than 40 years ago, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t tell us our math could only be correct if we acquired a fancy title first.
3) Those who are wrong but can’t persuaded they’re wrong because they have the logical-thinking capacity of a turnip.
Twitter Dumb showed up several times to insist the Harvard push-up study is meaningful because the guys who could do more than 41 push-ups had far fewer heart attacks than the guys who could do 10 or fewer. I tried explaining several times that after adjusting for age, the difference was not statistically significant. It says so right there in the study. That tells us the capacity to do push-ups was mostly just a marker for age.
Twitter Dumb replied several times by pointing (again) to the raw data. Terms like “adjusted for age” and “not statistically significant” apparently don’t mean anything to Twitter Dumb, who kept repeating that push-ups are obviously a good way to assess cardiovascular risk, just as Harvard told us, because the guys who could do more push-ups had fewer heart attacks.
So I pointed out that among the men who could do 21-30 push-ups, the rate of cardiovascular events was 2.3%, while among the group that could do 31-40 push-ups, the rate of cardiovascular events was 3.5%. If we believe the data is solid and meaningful, that means men who can do 31-40 push-ups have a 50% higher risk of heart disease than men who can only do 21-30 push-ups. Does anyone actually think that’s true? No, of course not. But you can’t pick and choose which chunks of data you want to believe and which ones you don’t. The data is either meaningful, or it isn’t. In this study, it clearly isn’t.
When I pointed out the 50% higher CVD rate among men who could do 31-40 push-ups vs. those who could only do 21-30, Twitter Dumb replied that he didn’t believe me. The reason? The authors of the study didn’t point out the difference themselves.
Ah, I see. Researchers who claim they discovered push-ups are a useful tool for assessing CVD risk didn’t point to the numbers that negated their claim. I guess that means the numbers don’t exist, even though they’re in the study tables for anyone to read. That’s Twitter Dumb logic for you.
This study reminded me of an observational study I once saw comparing meat consumption and cancer. In that study, cancer went up as meat consumption went up … but as meat consumption continued going up, the cancer rate went down. So what are we supposed to believe? That eating meat causes cancer unless you eat a lot of it? No, the logical conclusion is that meat had no effect on cancer either way. The numbers were just noise.
Same thing with the Harvard push-up study. If the rate of cardiovascular disease goes down, then sharply up, then sharply down again as men could perform more push-ups, that tells us push-ups are not, in fact, a useful measure of cardiovascular risk.
None of this logic had any effect on Twitter Dumb, who kept pointing to the (not statistically significant) difference in cardiovascular disease between the highest and lowest push-up groups.
4) Those who argue endlessly and absolutely refuse to admit they’re wrong even if you prove it.
Sometimes Twitter Dumb keeps arguing because he has the logical-thinking capacity of a turnip (see above). In fact, someone following one back-and-forth argument finally chimed in and replied to Twitter Dumb with Jesus effing Christ. You are literally too stupid to enter this discussion.
Heh-heh … yes, sometimes Twitter Dumb is like the tone-deaf person who can’t be convinced he sings off-key – because he’s tone deaf and therefore can’t hear that he’s off-key, so he refuses to believe he’s off-key. Illogical people can’t be convinced that they’re being illogical – because it takes a logical mind to recognize illogical thinking.
But other times, Twitter Dumb is actually an intelligent person who simply refuses to admit he got it wrong. He’s a walking, talking, tweeting example of the phenomenon described in the wonderful book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): once some people have taken a public position, they will defend it to the bitter end, even when proven wrong.
I don’t understand that mindset. Nobody knows everything there is to know about a subject, so everyone makes mistakes. The smart move is to admit those mistakes and move on. It’s not all that difficult to say, Sorry, looks like I got it wrong, thanks for pointing out the error.
I’ve been listening to Principles, written by Ray Dalio, who runs one of the world’s most successful investment firms. I’m not planning to become a Wall Street investor, but I wanted to know how this extraordinarily successful guy thinks.
Early in his career, Dalio lost a fortune (his money and his clients’ money) by being too confident in his own calculations. He had to lay off everyone at the firm, become its sole employee, and borrow money to stay afloat. That taught him a valuable lesson: always be willing to be proven wrong. In fact, he surrounds himself with people who are expected to challenge his strategies, his calculations, and his beliefs. All of his employees undergo training to learn to embrace having their beliefs challenged by others — which happens at regular company meetings.
Twitter Dumb would never make it as an employee of Dalio’s firm. When Twitter Dumb is proven wrong, absolutely and positively, he’ll either disappear from the conversation without admitting his mistake, or attempt to change the subject and continue arguing.
As you may recall, a doctor once chimed in on Twitter to deny that “hard-working, professional” dieticians would recommend pancakes to diabetics. I replied that a hard-working, professional dietician in a hospital had served pancakes (but no butter) to my diabetic father-in-law as a “heart-healthy” meal – a meal that caused his blood sugar to blow past 400.
Well, that’s just one dietician, the doctor insisted. It’s not typical.
So I tweeted direct quotes from articles by dieticians advising diabetics to eat 12 to 15 servings of “heart healthy” starchy foods per day. I also screen-capped menus from a bunch of hospitals – menus designed by hard-working, professional dieticians. The menus listed sugary cereals and pancakes under the “heart healthy” section. I tweeted one screen cap after another in my replies to the doctor. I suggested several times he just admit he’d gotten it wrong.
Nope. First he tried to turn it into an argument about whether I’d properly vetted the menus. (Apparently I was required to fly to the cities where the hospitals are located and check the menus in person.) Then he tried to turn it into an argument about whether I’d needlessly insulted the entire profession of dieticians. But he never admitted his original position – dieticians don’t serve pancakes as a “heart healthy” meal – was wrong, despite the proof. He finally disappeared from the conversation.
He’s a doctor, and (I hope) not dumb. But he’s Twitter Dumb. Twitter Dumb will never admit being wrong.
I’m grateful for social media because it’s enabled the Wisdom of Crowds to flourish. Debates and disagreements among thoughtful people are part of the process that allows the good ideas to rise to the top. I did, in fact, hear from a couple of thoughtful people who disagreed with my take on the Harvard push-ups study. They weren’t Twitter Dumb.
I guess if we want the benefits of social media, we have to take the downside as well. Hearing regularly from Twitter Dumb is one of the downsides.