Basic scientific method

As, I am sure, all of you know, a proper scientific experiment will have a ‘control group’. Say I have a new cancer drug. I can’t tell if it’s actually any good just by testing it. I need something else to compare it to. It’s only by means of the comparison that my results have any meaning. To see if the ‘independent variable’ is of any significance, you have to consider other possible factors which might be affecting the result. In short, you can’t treat a single phenomenon in isolation from everything else.

Bear this in mind, as we’ll come back to it later. But for now, let’s switch track and turn to the matter of ‘Russian interference’ in US politics. What have we learnt to date?

What we’ve learnt is that some ‘Russia-linked accounts’ posted messages about US politics, and paid for advertisements related to US politics, on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Some of these messages were anti-Clinton and pro-Trump (along the lines of ‘a vote for Hillary is a vote for Satan’), but some were anti-Trump, and some were about completely different things altogether (Black Lives Matter and the like). For a sample, take a look here.

We’ve also learnt that an account is deemed ‘Russia-linked’ if it features even one of the following criteria: it was created in Russia; registered via a Russian phone carrier or email account; uses Cyrillic characters; the user regularly uses the Russian language; and the user has logged in from any  Russian IP address, even once. I’ve logged in to this site in Russia, so according to this definition you are reading a ‘Russia-linked’ blog. That means that if I make any comments about US politics, they will be added to the list of evidence of ‘interference’ by the Russian government.

Clearly, this is all a bit silly. But, let’s not worry about that for the moment. Let’s accept that some of the ‘Russia-linked accounts’ are indeed Russian, though we can’t tell that any of them are actually linked to the Russian government, and let’s accept that Russians are posting things about US politics. Does that amount to ‘interference’? And does it show that Russians are particularly noteworthy interferers, so noteworthy as to justify a vast witch-hunt?

Now, this is where the matter of comparison comes into play. Russians are posting stuff about US politics. But what about everybody else? Let’s face it, Russians are hardly likely to be the only ones. US politics interests people just about everywhere, and some of them no doubt have some strong views on it and may even have generated some commentary or memes or something else which they’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re going to say that ‘Russian interference’ is especially prominent and dangerous, you need something to compare it to. For instance, you might compare it to the complete total of all social media users. Are Russians posting substantially more about US politics than social media users as a whole? Alternatively, you could look at individual countries. What about Canada-linked users; Britain-linked users; French-linked users; Mexican-linked users; whatever? Have any of them posted stuff about US politics, bought political advertisements, and the like? And if so, do they do it more or less than Russia-linked users, in proportion to their numbers.

This matters, because if you were to do such a comparison and discover that, say, Canadian users were generating very similar stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and doing just as much compared to their overall numbers, then you’d have to start investigating ‘Canadian interference’. Or if you found the same with Brits, Germans, French, Mexicans, Venezuelans, whatever, you’d have to investigate British, German, French, Mexican, Venezuelan, etc interference too. And then, it would become obvious that Russian interference’ isn’t particularly abnormal.

Maybe it is. Maybe, ‘Russia-linked accounts’ have generated far more of the sort of stuff under investigation than accounts linked to other countries. But then again, maybe not. To date, I haven’t read anything which suggests that anybody has carried out the research to show which is the case. If that is true (and please show me if I’m missing something), then all the findings about Russian interference are utterly meaningless, as they lack any comparison. This is basic scientific method. Am I the only person to have thought of this?

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9 thoughts on “Basic scientific method”

  1. The issue is that every “Russia-linked” account (including, perhaps, yours) is assumed to be acting under the direction and control of the diabolical enemy mastermind, the Dark Lord Putin.

    Canadian accounts don’t have this characteristic. They are nice and fluffy.

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  2. Another one that is funny, in a very grim sort of way, is the accusation of Russian media outlets being “divisive”. Compare to: Fox News and CNN, for instance.

    It obviously isn’t a matter of science.

    I think the national media felt some very serious guilt about totally botching their task of campaigning against Trump – spending months attacking his hair (signals lack of substantial argument, which wasn’t the case) and accusing his voters of racism (ends all possibility of a person changing their mind, poor rhetorical move). Oops. Can’t fix that, blame someone else.

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    1. “Another one that is funny, in a very grim sort of way, is the accusation of Russian media outlets being “divisive”. “

      Oh, they are – just look at DO///D’ TV, Ekho of Moscow, Novaya Gazeta. The thing is – the divide is not equal. Their supporters are an absolute minority

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  3. The delicious irony is that if it is indeed true that Tony Podesta cooked up the Russian interference narrative to shield Hillary from potential blame for losing the election, it has already backfired on his family in a big way after his brother was forced to resign as head of the Podesta Group.

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  4. Professor, your appeals to honesty and condemnation of the double standards are charming, but… you know that this whole circus with whores and horses is not about finding the truth, right?

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  5. Of course the US elections were of interest across the world – the fact that they take so long makes them hard to ignore!

    In the UK we had Nigel Farage actually go over to speak at Trump events.

    On a state level

    The mayor of London also endorsed Hillary Clinton.

    Our House of Commons and our media debated Trumos sexism after the infamous tape recording

    There was even a women’s march in London after Trump was elected and calls to ban him.

    Ext spy Christopher Steele worked for both the republicans and then for Hillary Clinton

    The UK was very much involved.

    But the UK is not defined as an enemy.
    The USA are making it clear that allies and friends can interfere.

    But Russia is the enemy and so no conversations with ambassadors should take place

    Russian people should not make comments or memes about USA politics – which are part of world events!!!

    Russia should be isolated and this is what this manufactured crisis sets out to achieve.

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