A tweet of mine went mildly viral0. There was a paper in PNAS about nasty surprises the climate might have in store for us1. It was reported in several places with the dread phrase: some scientists think.
This phrase irks me, falling somewhere below “some scientists believe” which suggests at least a bedrock of conviction on the scientist’s part, and “some scientists say” which implies that said scientist had reached the stage of articulation that involves another human being – someone who might laugh and tell other people behind their back – and which usually brings a mercifully-early end to the worst excesses of what “some scientists think“.
“I’m a scientist”, I thought. “I think. But this thinking has not always been followed by acts or words of great wisdom2. Often, the opposite happens and this might be a good way to illustrate the emptiness of the phrase”. Then, I thought, “What’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done?”
I sat there for a long time and came up with a very long list4. It started to feel like my life had been a series of astonishingly foolish acts5, interspersed at distant intervals by the kind of moments from which ordinary people – good people, worthwhile people – somehow construct the everyday fabric of their lives. However, no single act stood out as clearly more stupid than all the others.
So, almost at random, I chose the orange story. An orange is relatable – I wouldn’t have to explain the temperature-dependent friction of the special rubber you get on climbing boots, the relative flash points of solvents, or how I came into the presence of so many high-tension power supplies – and the narrative was, given the situation and that I survived, necessarily compact. It also proceeded in clear stages, which made it twitter friendly and meant I could write it in bits as I waited for my computer to finish chunks of processing.
It turned out to be far more twitter friendly than I would ever have thought.
The majority of people responded with laughter, which was at least my intention, although it’s clear not everyone was laughing at the same time or at the same thing6. Some folks said it had cheered them up in a way that was needful or rare, which caught me by surprise and made me extremely happy. Others expressed concern at my almost-fate, which was touching, though it was often followed by a guilty admission that they had found it very very funny. I forgive those people and absolve them of that guilt to the extent that I am able.
I caused some people anxiety, for which I am very sorry.
I’m not sure what to say to those who read the thread as some kind of prompt or instruction manual. Just no: don’t do that. A lot of people shared their own stories. I couldn’t reply to even a tiny fraction of those, but I read lots of them and… oh my. How homo sapiens survived this long I will never know.
It also sparked a divertingly matter-of-fact side conversation amongst the kind of people who do that sort of thing recreationally. The tone was surprisingly similar to that of the medical professionals who responded.
Some people said I was stupid7. I have no sound defence on this point other than to say, well yes, that’s the point of the story. I’m not that stupid all the time. Others took it to mean all scientists (even all experts) are stupid all the time, which indicates a complete failure of communication on my part as well as a very basic logical error on theirs.
My target was the journalistic shorthand “some scientists think” which can be a way of sensationalising the contents of a scientific report without providing the necessary background, context and caveats or the grounding voices of other scientists who think differently (and perhaps more sensibly). At best, it’s one of those empty stock phrases from which 90% of content is cobbled together, usually in a tearing hurry. I appreciate that journalists are frequently on impossibly tight deadlines, not always experts in the field, and that, even in the best of situations, they are at the mercy of the clickbait goblins8 who write headlines. It’s a hard job – writing articles not the goblin thing – but once you’ve seen it done well, it makes you sad to see it done badly.
A couple of journalists did respond and some passed it on.
Anyway, the viral stage seems to have passed, though my notifications are still broken. Three concrete things I learned. One, always proofread tweets with the same care you’d give any publication. You never know when a quarter of a million people will read them. Two, some folks like to read their tweet threads unrolled in a more standard blog format. WordPress will do this semi-automatically if you copy and paste the first tweet in the series and it will spare hundreds of people the need to ask the thread reader app to do it. Three, mention that something is a thread in the first tweet, otherwise people won’t realise it’s a thread.
PS: I almost9 forgot those who offered me advice for what to do10. While I believe they meant well and I don’t wish to appear wholly ungrateful, there are a few considerations. First, I can only imagine that in the situation, someone approaching me purposefully with a steak knife and a calculating eye (let alone the sudden heavy hand on my shoulder) would have done little to calm me and what unfolded in an essentially sedentary mode would have occurred at a flat out sprint. Furthermore, (and here the fault is mine, I suppose, for skimping on details) this all happened (second) on a Scottish mountainside (and third) over twenty years ago. It is not an ongoing situation for which I am canvassing twitter for advice and I am not planning on doing it again.
0. At least by my usual standards. Ordinarily, a tweet of mine will get a handful of likes. I am happy with this state of affairs.
1. “Climate endgame” was the phrase. In chess, the endgame is the tedious bit when most of the pieces are off the board. Often, one or another player who believes they have a material advantage (or else are short of time, or lost among the not-quite-infinitely-branching thicket of possibilities) will hasten the onset of the endgame. It can go on and on and on and on can the endgame. Many endgame situations have been “solved”, which is to say that for a range of situations the outcome is – bar mistakes – a foregone conclusion. I’m not sure all of these meanings and connotations were intended when the phrase climate endgame was deployed.
2. My decision to tweet the outcome of this thought process being, perhaps, a case in point3.
3. I don’t think with footnotes, but they do lend themselves to the act of thinking about thinking, as well as endless procrastination.
4. There were categories (electricity). The categories had sub-categories (high and low voltage electricity). I was even starting to consider some kind of cross-referencing scheme (electricity and heights, electricity and things I have put in my mouth).
5. For years, my hobby – the thing I did to relax and unwind – was climbing without ropes.
6. There are as many interpretations as people. More, probably.
7. One person said it several times. I liked all of their tweets, which sent them into a lather.
8. I believe clickbait goblin is the correct term. Journalists probably call them something else in public – subeditor or somesuch.
9. i.e. did.
10. The most practical being, don’t put a whole unpeeled orange in your mouth.