Comment »Posted on Monday 1 June 2009 at 1:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and I’m still not entirely sure what the point of it is and what you can do with it. Well, starting tomorrow we can add one more use for Twitter to the list: science.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman, in conjunction with New Scientist, plans to conduct the first scientific experiment on Twitter. Wiseman is a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, and specialises in studying possible psychic abilities. He plans to harness the power of the Twitter crowd to investigate remote viewing, the supposed ability of psychics to identify distant locations.

Every day this week at 3pm, he will travel to a randomly selected location and then ask everyone on Twitter to give him their thoughts on where he is. Thirty minutes later, he will follow up with another Tweet showing five photos – one of the real location, and four decoys. Participants will then vote for the photo they believe to be genuine.

Today’s experiment, taking place in just over an hour, is just a test run to make sure the system works, so Wiseman will only be counting data from the rest of the week. If you’d like to participate, simply follow him on Twitter. Word of warning, he has a rather unusual background image on his Twitter page!

But is it actually worth you while to do so? Is Twitter a suitable tool for this type of experiment? It all comes down to statistics. For each location, participants have a one in five chance of choosing the correct photo simply by random chance. If some form of psychic powers truly do exist, we would expect a higher proportion of correct guesses.

The odds are stacked against you with each subsequent test however. Whilst you may have a one in five chance of getting one location right, only one in 625 participants will correctly guess all four. Wiseman hopes that 10,000 people will answer his Twitter call. A quick calculation tells us that we can expect just 16 Twitterers to score four out of four. If the results are significantly higher than this, it suggests something odd is going on – though not necessarily psychic powers!

So Twitter really is a good way of conducting this experiment. For very little cost, Wiseman can find the large numbers of people he needs to make his study work. There are problems – what if people simply re-Tweet what they view as likely guess – so I’m not sure we’re going to get any amazing results out of this trial, but I look forward to taking part.


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