Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Some thoughts on methodological terrorism

Yesterday, I woke up to a shitstorm on Twitter, caused by an editorial-in-press by social psychologist Susan Fiske (who wrote my undergraduate Social Psych course textbook). The full text of the editorial, along with a superb commentary from Andrew Gelman, can be found here. This editorial, which launches an attack against so-called methodological terrorists who have the audacity to criticise their colleagues in public, has already inspired blog posts such as this one by Sam Schwarzkopf and this one which broke the time-space continuum by Dorothy Bishop

However, I would like to write about about one aspect of Susan Fiske’s commentary, which also emerged in a subsequent discussion with her at the congress of the German Society for Psychology (which, alas, I followed only on twitter). In the editorial Fiske states that psychological scientists at all stages of their career are being bullied; she seems especially worried about graduate students who are leaving academia. In the subsequent discussion, as cited by Malte Elson, she specifies that >30 graduate students wrote to her, in fear of cyberbullies.*

Being an early career researcher myself, I can try to imagine myself in a position where I would be scared of “methodological terrorists”. I can’t speak for all ECRs, but for what it’s worth, I don’t see any reason to stifle public debate. Of course, there is internet harassment which is completely inexcusable and should be punished (as covered by John Oliver in this video). But I have never seen, nor heard of, a scientific debate which dropped to the level of violence, rape or death threats.

So, what is the worst thing that can happen in academia? Someone finds a mistake in your work (or thinks they have found a mistake), and makes it public, either through the internet (twitter, blog), a peer-reviewed paper, or by screaming it out at an international conference after your talk. Of course, on a personal level, it is preferable that before or instead of making it public, the critic approaches you privately. On the other hand, the critic is not obliged to do this – as others build on your work, it is only fair that the public should be informed about a potential mistake. It is therefore, in practice, up to the critic to decide whether they will approach you first, or whether they think that a public approach would be more effective in getting an error fixed. Similarly, it would be nice of the critic to adopt a kind, constructive tone. It would probably make the experience more pleasant (or less unpleasant) for both parties, and be more effective in convincing the person who is criticised to think about the criticiser’s point and to decide rationally whether or not this is a valid point. But again, the critic is not obliged to be nice – someone who stands up at a conference to publicly destroy an early career researcher’s work is an a-hole, but not a criminal. (Though I can even imagine scenarios where such behaviour would be justified, for example, if the criticised researcher has been unresponsive to private expressions of concern about this work.)

As an early career researcher, it can be very daunting to face an audience of potential critics. It is even worse if someone accuses you of having done something wrong (whether it’s a methodological shortcoming of your experiment, or a possibly intentional error in your analysis script). I have received some criticism throughout my five-year academic career; some of it was not fair, though most of it was (even though I would sometimes deny it, in the initial stages). Furthermore, there are cultural differences in how researchers express their concern with some aspect of somebody’s work: in English-speaking countries (Australia, UK, US), much softer words seem to be used for criticising than in many mainland European countries (Italy, Germany). When I spent six months during my PhD in Germany, I was shocked at some of the conversations I had overheard between other PhD students and their supervisors – being used to the Australian style of conversation it seemed to me that German supervisors could be straight-out mean. Someone who is used to being told about a mistake with the phrase: “This is good, but you might want to consider…” is likely to be shocked and offended if they go to an international conference and someone tells them straight out: “This is wrong.” This could lead to some people feeling personally attacked due to what is more or less a cultural misunderstanding.

In any event, it is inevitable that one makes mistakes from time to time, and that someone finds something to criticise about your work. Indeed, this is how science progresses. We make mistakes, and we learn from them. We learn from others’ mistakes. Learning is what science is all about. Someone who doesn’t want to learn cannot be a scientist. And if nobody ever tells you that you made a mistake, you cannot learn from it. Yes, criticism stings, and some people are more sensitive than others. However, responding to criticism in a constructive way, and being aware of potential cultural differences in how criticism is conveyed, is part of the job description of an academic. Somebody who reacts explosively or defensively to criticism cannot be a scientist just like someone who is afraid of water cannot be an Olympic swimmer.

In response to this, Daniël Lakens wrote, in a series of tweets (I can’t phrase it better): “100+ students told me they think of quitting because science is no longer about science. [… They are the] ones you want to stay in science, because they are not afraid, they know what to do, they just doubt if a career in science is worth it.”