Error Detection Week — Monday

Selective empathy in the absence of insight is goddamn dangerous.

James Heathers
May 7, 2018 · 7 min read


I write a lot. This week, I’m writing every day.

Specifically, I’m writing a series of short vignettes. Some will be shorter, louder, and more awful than others.

These are born of thoughts from the last week or so, plus some other things I had lying around as unloved and unfinished drafts, notes from the back of envelopes, pieces of recurring incoherent dreams of fire and sulphur, flashes of what passes for insight but probably isn’t, and anything else that raised its head like a confused terrapin along the way.

All of the topics are in and around error detection — which is the most accurate blanket term for ‘the identification of problematic academic text and behaviour’. This unhappy little blanket covers plagiarism, text recycling, statistical and numerical errors, technique development, and so on. I do it.

I hope it isn’t utterly self-indulgent, and only partially dreadful.

So, here we go with:

Selective Empathy In The Absence Of Insight Is Goddamn Dangerous.

In the aftermath of a scientific problem being identified publicly, hands are wrung with astonishing force. It’s amazing some people still have wrists which successfully articulate — mine couldn’t take it, I’d have flippers.

I’m just concerned about the language being used here.

“Look, I agree with the sentiment, I agree with none of the actions that have taken place, I just don’t like the mob mentality and the pile-on culture.”

“I wish there wasn’t the vitriol that there was.”

“Is this some kind of witch-hunt?”

“Does it have to be said like this? I think you’re losing people because of the way this is being handled.”

(Note: not direct quotes, but I have also redacted my more disrespectful parodies, so we’ll call it even)

Naturally, I have no problem with any of the above being said. You have to commit to a marketplace of ideas. Everyone gets a hit. Clutch dem pearls.

And those of you who’ve struggled through my previous will realise I personally agree with some of this. I’ve made my feelings on vitriol in substantive criticism very clear — I don’t think it’s rude and untoward, I have no pearls to clutch, I just think it’s less effective. I would simply prefer strong criticism of scientific practice was effective, because generally I agree with it.

However, I don’t get to tell people how to feel, which generally informs how they talk. And I have something that the hand-wringers and gremlins do not and will never have — non-selective empathy.

Let me explain.

In the interaction between the Scientist Who Is Criticised and the Scientist Who Criticizes, something I’ve seen a titch of in the last few years, we have two titular characters:

Nice Fluffy Researcher I Know Personally Who Might Have Done Wrong But Means Well And Is Actually Lovely And Always Walks His Dogs, Or Is A Victim Of Circumstances, Or It Wasn’t That Bad, Or The Work Is Actually Valuable Irrespective Of Context, Or… etc.


Mean Jealous Petty Shrill Second-Stringer Critic, Motive Unknown Presumed Hostile.

Ooh, I saw a lot of this at the start of the Wansink debacle, those critical motives really were in question. In general, everyone in the discussion agrees there’s a problem, and then proceeds straight to kicking the hell out of the context of that problem.

And within that discussion, two overlapping sets of critical motives — sometimes overlapping, sometimes independent — are posited:


(1) is a shit person.

(2) has a desire for notoriety.

(Or, of course, someone posts the total absence of any definable motive, which I guess is (0), “What would motivate a person to do such a thing?” Cue Blanche DuBois.)

Both of these are hilarious bad explanations. In order:

(1) There’s not enough personality defects to go around. Science worth correcting in public is usually borne of goofs, oversights, inattention, of not understanding scientific processes. And the ‘terrible people’ knife doesn’t even cut both ways — for instance, I think most researchers who have fallen into bad habits, published terrible papers full of obvious mistakes, ripped off others (or themselves), or as otherwise polluted the literature are far more likely to be responding to weird incentives to being published, and have been consistently rewarded for bad practices they’ve internalised. They’re not cartoon villains or wild-eyed maniacs. No moustache-twirling, no glee. I think they’re entirely normal people who’ve lost sight of a goal (the pursuit of demonstrable facts) because they’re a bit snow-blind, or a bit selfish. Just like the rest of us. Basically, critics don’t even think the targets of criticism are ‘bad people’.

(2) If ‘vicious public criticism’ was a great way to get positive attention in scientific fields full of people desperate to differentiate themselves, with a job market that ranks as ‘challenging’ at absolute best, then there would be a thousand thousand people falling over themselves to ‘take something out’, or whatever mindlessly aggressive nomenclature stolen from 70’s cop shows is more appropriate. As above, people respond to incentives. If there was a really good selfish incentive to criticise something in public, then trenchant criticism would be incredibly common. It isn’t.

So, if both of those are a wash, what IS the critical motive?

And, having established that, why don’t some people get it?

On that, my previous:

One of the things any critical body anywhere is continually told is : “Never forget that you’re criticizing a person”.

The forgotten and obvious corollary to this is “never forget that criticism is itself coming from people, who themselves have complicated and overlapping motivations. When X criticises the poor research practice or continuous obfuscation or ongoing hostility to criticism of Y, discussions can go like this:

“Never forget, Y started his career in a different time. Y is probably having difficulty coming to terms with these changes in the field. Y is not a bad person, but probably feels under attack. Y is proud of his achievements and is standing up for them. Y has dealt with a great deal in his life, and feels like the foundations of what is valuable are changing.”

X? Bollocks to her. Her motivations are assumed. Or opaque. It doesn’t matter. Or, at least, it’s never pursued.

But, but, but — she’s people too. She’s party to a system she feels has persistently ignored the need to change for longer than her lifetime. She’s worried she bought into a career path that will position itself for long-term irrelevance. She’s intensely concerned she’ll be thrown overboard while charlatans and smilers thrive. She’s outraged at the inaction she sees in journals and from people who are unequivocally producing bad work. And, unlike many who’ve already made their pile and are engaged essentially in legacy-building, she has to make her bones and live and thrive and pay her rent in a system with demonstrably different priorities to her. Which also, you might have noticed, is an industry that kind of sucks to be young in.

Corollary to the above: your average successful well-known senior professor has absolutely no fucking idea how many people have been pushed off the academic wagon, then run over by it. They get the general skullduggery “the stakes are so low” [2] kind of environment — they’re not stupid, and they sit on committees. Wars, rows, billingsgate, and backstabbing they get in spades.

But they honestly do not believe that a system they’ve done well in is structurally problematic. It’s more “sure, there are problems, but whatcha gonna do?” They have vanishingly little experience with marginalised academia, which in some fields is verging on MOST junior researchers. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to not get a job, or to be hounded out of one, or to see a vast hole where your promised career progression should be.

And, generally, they’ve settled for a fractious pragmatism with bad practice, absent of the shred of any desire to do anything about it.

Of course, they still experience academic disappointments — everyone does. They still miss out on grants and get papers bounced. But they are a part of the system which awards grants and bounces papers. They sit on committees and edit journals. They are a participant, an insider. They do not work at the behest of anything or anyone. If they look for another job, they enter into a complex negotiation to get what they want, rather than try to differentiate themselves from the other 150 applicants.

And rent? Rent, hell, some of them haven’t had a mortgage since the 90s.

This is where the whole ‘second-stringers’ line is borne aloft, the idea of critics as also-rans. These are people who couldn’t ‘cut it’. Shite.

Of course, the above is a really broad brush. Not universally true, only some passing version of collectively accurate.

But, in general, in the aftermath of some uncomfortable truth being pointed out, when someone is doing their best Chicken Little impression and crying mercy to the skies over the temerity of someone who’d be so rude/untoward, my first assumption is they haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a young scientist since the Carter administration.

They see no urgency, no problems, and no reason to act. They see public criticism as the uncollegial and inexplicable acts of ruiners and cyberbullies, while their empathy for their contemporaries is intact.

It’s a selective empathy, and it’s goddamn dangerous.

[1] This whole thing is a partial re-telling / setup of a previous section in , which feels appropriate to acknowledge here bc. publicly identifying source material is what you’re supposed to do, even if it’s yours.


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