Don’t be a Nattering Nabob

“That idea was disproven years ago and you’re wasting our time by bringing it up again.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“This is bad science.”

Twenty-three years ago, I watched this invective rain down upon a postdoc at a small meeting on global change science.  His antagonist was notoriously irascible, but also justifiably famous, the kind of scientific leader whose disapproval could be psychologically damaging at best, career-killing at worst.  The stark discomfort of the moment, coming as it did during only my second year in grad school, remains vivid today.

I can still see the postdoc’s face, his thick beard insufficient disguise for a flush that was part embarrassment, part anger.  I can feel the discomfort in the room, I can hear the agitated shuffling of the postdoc’s feet and the almost casual aggression in the tone of his questioner.  And I can remember the way the postdoc hung in there, gamely pushing back for a bit, until he was ultimately steamrolled by barbs that went beyond scientific critique and into the realm of personal insult.  The session moderator floated an awkward joke to lighten the mood, found it lacking, then just hurried on to the next talk.  The meeting was a small one, where you tended to see everyone over beers at the end of the day, but the postdoc was conspicuously absent from that evening’s gathering.

Worst of all?  His antagonist was wrong.  Not just in his obvious lack of social or professional grace, but in the science itself.  We just didn’t know it yet.   Years later, I read a commentary from the antagonist on the very same issue, a nuanced and intelligent piece of writing in which he now gave credence to ideas he’d blistered and buried in that small Colorado meeting room.  I wondered if he’d called the postdoc to apologize.  Probably not.

Recently, memories of all this were exhumed by blog posts from the COMPASS gang: Brooke Smith, Karen Mcleod, Liz Neely and Nancy Baron have all written pieces of late that highlight the need for a supportive community in the world of scientific communication and leadership.  Nancy’s post on the “top ten qualities” of scientific leadership was the one that led me back to that Colorado meeting room, via numbers 4 and 5 on her list:

4) They are generous and think beyond their own work to support others.
5) They take risks and are willing to fail – sometimes publicly.

The Colorado antagonist was (and is) unquestionably a leader in some ways.  His scientific contributions are legendary and important.  But in that moment, he was neither generous nor risk-taking.  He chose to belittle the ideas and data of a more junior scientist, and chose not to carefully consider the possibility that the younger man’s ideas, even though they challenged the antagonist’s world view, might have merit — merit he later indirectly acknowledged in that commentary.  In short, he attacked first, thought later.

It would be easy to dismiss this incident as an anomaly, and in some ways it was.  Such public displays of professional animosity are thankfully rare.  But in a thousand more subtle ways, I find science too often erring on the side of asking what’s wrong with this? as opposed to first asking:  what’s right?  It’s a colleague more prone to begin a conversation about a paper’s flaws than its merits.  It’s a panel understandably looking to pare down numbers under thin budgets, but still creating a group culture of seeking problems over potential.  It’s questioners at meetings and seminars looking (consciously or not) to display their own smarts by knocking down the work of others.  It’s committee members still holding fast to antiquated academic beliefs about how a student needs to be put through the ringer to prove his or her worth.  It’s an entire culture that is necessarily built on the currency of peer review and rejection, but that extends a need to find flaws into a default assumption that they are always present and should be sought first.

Look, I get it.  Critique is essential to scientific quality, and if you can’t take well-intentioned criticism, science is probably not the gig for you.  But like almost any aspect of life, the optimal approach represents a balance of support and critique, of excitement and caution, of optimism and skepticism.  Culturally, our traditional reward systems and practices too often favor the negative side of this balance.  In part, that is why Nancy Baron is exactly right to highlight generosity and risk-taking as key features of scientific leadership.  Too often in science, it is (sadly) easier to criticize than support, and it can be risky to defend the merits of an imperfect idea or dataset.

Shifting that balance in a more positive direction has tangible benefits.  It keeps people engaged and happy, and thus more likely to be creative and push through science’s unavoidable challenges and disappointments.  It increases the chances that those who are less represented in science might weather their discomforts, join up and stay in the game.   It keeps ideas that might first seem worthless from premature dismissal…and some of those ideas will ultimately prove transformative.  And hell, it’s just more fun for everyone.

But it’s more than that.  We now live in a world where global change science and peer review in general are under political attack.  A world with declining support for higher education and scientific research.  A world where doing science is getting harder, and where the science that must be done demands broad-scale collaboration.  And above all, a world where the need for science to contribute to society’s challenges while simultaneously being part of the larger world rather than culturally separate from it is ever more pressing.   All of these issues demand a scientific culture of peer-support, of openness to different viewpoints, of broad engagement.

Our science must be of high quality, and it must stand up to the rigors of peer review.  And, as Simon Donner rightly points out, we must be willing and able to critically review ourselves and each other in realms of science beyond just the research core.  But to improve the standing and support of science in society, to recruit and retain the deepest and most diverse talent pool, to maximize the chances that our science makes a difference, we need to build up more than tear down.  Doing so does not have to mean a loss of rigor or accuracy.

Try it on for size.  Next time you go to a talk, read a proposal, read a paper: force yourself to look first for what’s cool, not what’s wrong.  Approaching science in that order, not the reverse, tends to change the nature and details of what you ultimately will identify as flaws.  Critically, it doesn’t mean you won’t still find those flaws – you’ll just slot them in a different context.  A context that can help make science a more inclusive, more enjoyable and ultimately more successful enterprise.

5 thoughts on “Don’t be a Nattering Nabob

  1. Steven Katona

    What a wonderful and freeing message, well worth remembering, sharing and tattooing on one’s arm. Thanks so much for writing and posting this,

  2. Sarah Boon

    I’m so glad to see a post about this. It gets at the heart of what we need to do as scientists to build a more diverse and egalitarian culture, while also weathering the attacks on climate change and other disciplines. I know more academics who are interested in showing how intelligent they are rather than demonstrating generosity or risk-taking. And those who DO show these characteristics are often ridiculed (particularly if not male). Definitely a post to share broadly!

  3. cnmackenz

    Great post. Having just gone through the ringer of qualifying exams, I’m very happy to report that I found mentors (and then made them my committee members) who were supportive and positive, even while dishing out (constructive) criticism. These senior scientists are out there, and I hope the culture of ecology & science continues to shift in their favor.

  4. Pingback: Thursday Links: Fourier transforms, paleontology blogs, evolutionary tempo, adorable kittens | fossilosophy

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