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Facebook debunks Princeton's STUDY OF DOOM in epic comeback

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Facebook's data scientists have schooled two Princeton students who published a paper predicting that the social network would lose 80 per cent of its users by 2017 and go extinct shortly afterwards.

In a mock study Mike Develin, Lada Adamic, and Sean Taylor, of Facebook's data team, used the same methods as the original paper to show that Princeton was facing a decline in undergraduates of 50 per cent in the next four years and would have none at all by 2021. They also used the same logic to show the world will run out of air by 2060.

"We don’t really think Princeton or the world’s air supply is going anywhere soon. We love Princeton (and air). As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions," the Facebook trio said.

The team gently points out that the two PhD students from Princeton's department of mechanical and aerospace engineering had fallen into one of the oldest traps in the book, the assumption that "correlation equals causation."

The duo were using [PDF] historical Google search query data as a metric for users, then sought to fit a data curve to the model, working on the assumption that social network membership was spread by friends and would follow a decline as people dropped out, in the same way that flu outbreaks grow and spread. To back this up they used data from MySpace's birth, explosive growth, and then decline to "prove" their point.

By applying the same logic, Facebook's own study now shows Princeton is in a similar pickle, with declining interest among Google users, indicating the institution - established in 1746 – will be student-free by 2021 as fewer people are searching Google for information on the place.

To confirm this finding, the Mark Zuckerberg-led Facebook looked at the mentions of Princeton academic papers that cropped up on Google and found that it has declined sharply since 2009, and is still falling. This correlates the Google Search data and makes Facebook's case that Princeton is doomed.

The Facebook scientists are too polite to say it, but this is either very poor science or just another attempt to gain 15 minutes of fame rather than be any serious attempt at knowledge gathering. Neither outcome reflects well on Princeton academics. ®

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