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WTF Wednesday: Science reduced to Facebook personality tests

Catherine McIntyre

The National Academy of Science just published a study that shows what your Facebook ‘Likes’ reveal about your behaviours and personal life. The study released March 11 explains:

“We show that easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.”

Here are some of the findings: If you like “Being Conservative” and “The Bible,” you are “Satisfied with life”; if you like “Gorillaz” and “Science” you are “Unsatisfied with life”; and liking “Not Being Pregnant” and  “The L Word” means you are “A homosexual woman.”

As always, there was a furor over what looks like another Facebook privacy violation. Chain messages warning friends to tighten up their privacy settings yet again circulated the web.

Others embraced the study with a fun, interactive app—The One Click Personality Test. “It looks at the things you Like on Facebook, and then tells you who you are. Because you are what you like.”

But what do the results really mean? Basically, marketers now have another resource for targeting consumers, and anyone who wants to can use the results to make inferences about your personal life (as if they weren’t doing that already).

Most of these results are pretty obvious anyway. For example, if you ‘Like’ Jesus Christ that means you’re a Christian; if you ‘Like’ Belvedere Vodka that means you drink alcohol. Other results are plain weird, like if you ‘Like’ Curly Fries you likely have a high IQ.

My concern isn’t that this tool will be used to profile or “out” people. What gets me is that the study was done in the first place. This is a scientific study conducted by Cambridge University. Is this really what science (at least the stuff we’re exposed to) is reduced to? A marketing tool? Meanwhile in Canada, researchers battle to get funding for real science only to be muzzled when their results don’t jibe with the federal government’s agenda.

As of February 1 this year, Harper tightened up the privacy settings on science research. Now, any research associated with the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is vetted by the government before it’s submitted to a scientific journal. The government also controls who scientists give interviews to and what kind of questions they can answer.

When journalist, Michael Harris, called bull-shit on Harper, the government simply lied about what’s been going on. The DFO posted on its website, “The iPolitics story by Michael Harris published on February 7th, 2013 is untrue. There have been no changes to the Department’s publication policy.”

An unnamed DFO scientist responded by posting an e-mail from Michelle Wheatley, the Central and Arctic science director, which outlined changes to the publication policy. The scientist ended the post, “You decide who’s being untruthful.”

It’s embarrassing, really. Scientists from the United States say they won’t work with the DFO because they refuse to be muzzled. And in the Canadian arctic we’re neglecting the world’s prime location for studying climate change, leaving scientists in Sweden and Germany – confused and annoyed –to pick up our slack.

So great, we know what our ‘Likes’ tell us about our behaviours, but what do our behaviours tell us about climate change in the arctic, or the state of salmon aquaculture operations. Maybe it’s not a lack of privacy that’s the problem, but too much of it.

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