Friday, 10th September, 2010

Scientists Are Dicks

The skeptic community has been discussing vigorously on Phil Plait's (@BadAstronomer) "Don't be a dick" talk at James Randi Educational Foundations's Amazing Meeting 8.

Some people have taken it personally or accused Plait of only relying on anecdotal evidence. In any case, the response in the blogosphere has been fierce.

His point can be put into a single question he posed to the audience during the talk: "How many of you no more believe in those things [UFOs, religion, etc.] because somebody got into your face, screamed at you and called you an idiot?". Some people would answer "Me!" to this question, but not necessarily very many.

Daniel Loxton (@Daniel_Loxton) has been reflecting to this both on twitter and on the Skepticblog (here and here). I posted the following as a comment to the latter blog entry.

Now, getting to the title of this post, what does this all have to do with scientists?

In my opinion, the on-going discussion on the “dickiness” of the skeptics seems to neglect the under-laying reason for it has omitted an interesting parallel to the scientific world. For a scientist, as myself, it seems obvious. We Scientists are trained to tear each other apart. That’s what science is all about.

When we get a manuscript to review from our peers, we do our best to find each and every weakness in it, point it out, and tell the writers to try harder to polish their theory and correct the mistakes, if possible. Sometimes the theories are so bad that they are “Not even wrong!

Some referee reports are very rude, and sometimes the ‘questions’ after a conference presentation are set to demolish the speaker. Some scientists seem to even try to do this simply to show their power (or to protect their own old theories).

Hence, many of us expect everyone else is (a) ready for similar criticism if they present their own ideas and (b) expecting others to do their best in tearing their arguments apart.

As an anecdote, I should confess that my wife accuses me of doing exactly this when we disagree on something. And that’s with a person I’m deeply in love with. Imagine what happens with people we don’t even like.

As Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted World (p. 31, paperback): “But there’s one side [in science] that is really striking to the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criticism considered acceptable or even desirable.

Randy Olson joins the choir in his recent “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” by noting that (paperback, p. 99): “[W]hen I was a graduate student – we learned to write first drafts of our scientific papers, give them to colleagues, and then eagerly await their comments. The more red ink on the manuscript when it came back, the better. The only thing that would ever cause anger would be someone not covering the manuscript in red ink, suggesting they were just lazy.

In fact, I know many scientists who have earned their reputations by being the harshest critiques of the work of their students, colleagues and even of themselves.

In my opinion, this indicates where the problem is. Scientists are dicks to each other (for people judging from outside). That’s the way of the scientific mind in the scientific setting. And for many scientists, there is no other setting. They always talk the science talk. Olson felt that the topic was worthy of a book. Judging from the discussion after Phil Plait’s talk, and from other facts like Olson’s book, internet has changed things for the skeptics and for the scientists.

We aren’t any longer simply talking to ourselves. Now we have a broader audience, and it’s time to learn how to communicate with it effectively.

It’s good to have the discussion on. I wish as many scientists as possible will pay attention. This is not just about UFOs and the Bigfoot.




2 comment(s). Hide comments.

Of course, here we run into the problem of \'dick definition\'. Is it in
the interpretation on behalf of the audience, or do we put the onus on the
communicator? Personally, I don\'t see how we can ask people to force a
change in how they interpret particular bits of text. But we can encourage
people to consider how they select their words in anticipation of how
they\'ll be received.

I don\'t think we\'d get very far if every criticism was considered to be
\'dickish\', and therefore to be avoided. Yet for such criticism to be most
effective, I think most scientists would agree it\'s best to avoid trying
to incite shame or embarrassment in their audience. Marking a paper with
\'No, you\'re clearly an idiot!\' or \'Sure, and monkeys fly from my arse
every full moon\' is clearly not the same thing as saying \'This is
incorrect - please read Fulham 2006 for more information on primer X\'.

Dickishness is a topic about selecting communication methods for reaching
your goal. If you goal is to shame somebody for making a claim or stating a
belief, then fine. Mission accomplished. But believing this shame will
somehow magically change minds and encourage critical thinking strategies
is an assumption at best.

By Mike McRae from 122.49.202.79 on Saturday 11th of September 2010 02:26:41 AM

Thanks for your comment, Mike.

The whole dick discussion has the very problem you mentioned in the
beginning. Nobody has clearly defined the dick. Therefore Plait has
been accused of attacking a strawman.

To be honest, most referee reports are overly polite even in their
critique. However, I believe everybody has seen examples of the rude
ones as well.

Besides, I\'m not saying we should stop delivering critique. My point
is rather that the general public will think scientists are a bunch of
dicks, if we always shout at the enemies of science and call them
idiots.

By Jani Kotakoski from 91.154.145.40 on Saturday 11th of September 2010 09:06:27 AM

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