Sunday, August 18, 2013

Richard Dawkins' Twitter Followers

I remember the first time I met Muslim apologist Adnan Rashid. He, Hamza Tzortzis and other members of the Islamic Education and Research Academy were running a stall on my route home and he attempted to convince me evolution could not be true because of 'irreducible complexity'. As he waxed lyrical on the complexities of bacterial flagellum (a whiplike appendage that enables movement in bacteria) I realised he was liberally borrowing from the work of Christian creationist Michael Behe.

Rather than point out the incongruity of relying on such a source I said it seemed odd to offer a mechanism that allows the spread of devastating diseases like Legionnaire's as evidence for a loving God. He paused, folded his arms, fixed me with a gaze that conveyed seriousness and then asked "what would happen if all the cells in your body lost their flagellums?".

Some with an interest in biology may have chuckled at the above. Bacterial flagella by definition are attached only to bacteria, facilitate movement, and as a general rule the cells in my body have no particular need to independently decide to relocate. It demonstrated the lightest skimming of Christian creationist material and a near complete misunderstanding of Behe's rather poor argument. (Those interested can see it debunked in full here. You can watch footage of Rashid losing an argument with PZ Myers here.)

The second time I shared a room with Rashid was at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, 2011, when he asked a ponderously long and dreary question of Dawkins. I shared my anecdote with Dawkins who chuckled briefly. I thought it might be interesting to look at his Twitter account.

Word Cloud

I took a sample of five thousand of Dawkins' followers and examined their Twitter biographies, running them through a program that counts the frequency of words folk use to describe themselves and assembling an image where most frequently used words are shown in greater sizes. Dawkins' followers are likely to describe themselves using words like student, science, university, teacher and atheist. (On a general note, an improbably high number of tweeps describe themselves as writers. I do hope they have day jobs.)

Words noted by their absence include homeopath, Hare Krishna, acupuncture and miracle. It seems the head of the foundation for reason and science has done an admirable job of attracting those interested in both fields.

These results are indicative only. Again working off the same sample of five thousand Twitter accounts, I ran the first names through a script I wrote to estimate gender. It isn't overly complex - I have a list of known masculine names and a list of known feminine names. Based on the results it seems that 75% of Dawkins' followers have masculine names.

Twitter does not lack voices telling Dawkins how he should best spend his time and I do not feel compelled to add mine to the clamour. I merely observe this as a potential area of improvement.

Who else do they follow?

I wrote another program that allows me to examine a number of accounts and see if they share common interests. Given someone follows Dawkins, I was curious how likely they were to follow, say, Ricky Gervais (likely) or the Pope (perhaps less likely). I chose a random sample of 1,000 followers and waited for the results - 81 of the sample had protected accounts and I was unable to pull the required data from them so the below is based on a sample of 909 - the top twenty are listed below. The figure in brackets is the percentage of the sample that also follow said account.

  1. Ricky Gervais (28.60%)
  2. Neil deGrasse Tyson (28.16%)
  3. Barack Obama (25.30%)
  4. Stephen Fry (24.42%)
  5. NASA (21.56%)
  6. Bill Nye (18.26%)
  7. BBC Breaking News (18.04%)
  8. Bill Gates (17.05%)
  9. National Geographic (16.83%)
  10. Brian Cox (16.83%)
  11. Seth MacFarlane (16.61%)
  12. Dalai Lama (16.61%)
  13. The Onion (16.06%)
  14. TEDTalks Updates (15.51%)
  15. Conan O'Brien (14.41%)
  16. Bill Maher (13.97%)
  17. Stephen Colbert (13.86%)
  18. The New York Times (13.75%)
  19. Russell Brand (12.87%)
  20. New Scientist (12.54%)

I learned with some embarrassment that I was not following @TedTalks, number 14 on the list. It is an omission I have since rectified and I recommend you should too. There is much to be proud of in this top twenty: a strong mix of science, humour, current affairs and atheism. There are some outliers. I'm still scratching my head at the presence of the Dalai Lama, though to be fair his account has almost seven and a half million followers - that it ranked 12th is more likely a function of general popularity than a specific interest in Tibetan Buddhism among those who choose to follow Dawkins. I enjoy Russell Brand's humour, but his dalliances with Hare Krishnas and their disturbing beliefs do put me off. Does he believe the moon to be larger than the sun? Does he consider women's brains half the size of men's?

One rather glaring omission is women. Continuing down the list Sarah Silverman is the first female entrant, followed by 11.55% of the 909. Reviewing the top 100 in its entirety we also find Ellen DeGeneres  (9.02%) Katy Perry (8.91%), Emma Watson (8.36%), Lady Gaga (7.92%), Taylor Swift (7.81%) and finally Oprah Winfrey (7.48%). Going through the top 200 we find in addition Rihanna, Hillary Clinton, Britney Spears, P!nk, Amanda Bynes, Michelle Obama, Miley Ray Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Yoko Ono and Beyoncé Knowles. While all successful in their own right I'd rather hoped to find some more women in science to follow.

There are caveats that should be attached. Perhaps my sample size should be larger. I chose a thousand as it seems a typical number used by polling agencies - if you have a relevant background I'd be grateful for your thoughts in the comments section. While there are those who seek to blame Dawkins for most of the world's ills I have yet to encounter someone who holds him personally responsible for science being at present a male dominated field: we should consider that a preponderance of male scientists will likely skew the figures. Also, Dawkins has not to my knowledge made a specific commitment to promote women in science, so their absence on this list could not be termed hypocritical on his part.

That said, perhaps such a commitment would be wise. To quote:
The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.
Is this one that can be accomplished while science is still often seen as something that men do? I humbly submit that it is not, and an attempt to redress the balance would be a most productive use of time.

Post Scriptum: I've been asked about anti Muslim sentiment among Dawkins' followers. In retrospect this is a topical subject and one I should have included. I've had a look through the data gathered - of the five thousand I polled to check Twitter biographies, not one mentioned 'EDL' or 'UKIP'. None of the top 200 accounts followed mention either term. Sixteen followers (of the 5k sample) mention 'Muslim'. Two are ex Muslims, five are Muslims, several were discussing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and one was tweeting a link to an article by a Dr Ramzy of Oxford's Muslim community. One was a manual retweet of Dawkins' Nobel Prize tweet, and one was discussing a Million Muslim march on the 11th of September. Apologies for the rushed nature of this addendum - time pressure.

If you'd like to learn more about how I get this information, there's some background here. I'll be happy to provide you with data on the Twitter account of your choice if you make a charitable donation. You might also enjoy a look at the Twitter stats of the creationist Discovery Institute, or a contrast between the stats of philosopher, author and atheist Stephen Law and Christian apologist William Lane Craig.


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