Error Detection Week — Thursday

Some Points On Bullying, Attacks and Criticism

James Heathers
May 10, 2018 · 6 min read

I never paid much attention to the academic literature on bullying, so trying to assess it quickly was like trying to drink a thunderstorm.

I had a go anyway.

Proximal and distal causes, theories of power dynamics, the individual psychology of bullies and victims, the difference between school and workplace, lost productivity / education hours, general societal cost, online vs. IRL, graduation to other forms of abuse, mob behaviour and de-individuation, bullying vs. harassment / abuse / aggression, forms (verbal, physical, ostracism, etc.), and on and on it goes.

(Note to self: should have called this piece ‘The Awful Muddiness of Being Awful’)

It is worth trying to grapple with these definitions, though, because they throw up some interesting points. I’ve got three here.

  1. Traditional definitions of bullying center around the idea of an amplification of an existing power dynamic.
  2. There is a highly fluid boundary between any given personal definition of strong criticism and attacks.
  3. Science has a complicated relationship with conflict.

I’ll handle these with subheadings because I don’t have the time to make this anything resembling a satisfying narrative.

Traditional definitions of bullying center around the idea of an amplification of an existing power dynamic.

… and this is a real thorn in the side of calling a critic a bully.

Let me explain.

All dictionaries (and most academic Introduction sections) focus on three core components of bullying: (1) repeated actions over time (2) negativity, hostility, or transgression (3) a power imbalance where the bully asserts continuing dominance over the bullied.


As I discussed yesterday, my experience with criticism describes a preponderance of strong public academic criticism going towards powerful people. Not the other way around. There are very few full professors and members of the National Academy of Sciences engaging in the serious criticism of the work of graduate students, outsiders, junior researchers, etc.

So, here’s a fun heuristic to keep in mind in future — who has the power here?

When you see a bunch of graduate students criticising the work of an incredibly senior professor, are they engaged in an exercise in asserting dominance? They are not. They cannot laud control they do not have.

Always ask who has the power. When a rich, tenured, popular figure at a famous university is claiming to be bullied, always ask first if what they mean instead is closer to ‘I feel disrespected’ or ‘get those kids off my damn lawn’.

There is a highly fluid boundary between any given personal definition of strong criticism and attacks.

This one is easy enough to understand, but it bears repeating — science is global, scientists are heterogeneous. What seems reasonable to me, an Australian with an incredibly high threshold for personal abuse (this is generally how we communicate affection [1]), will not meet other standards of acceptability.

However, I don’t think that abuse is a central part of the problem here. Anyone who’s actually hostile, in text or in person, is pretty quickly flagged as a crank or a nut by everyone. Yes, even the data thugs. I have plenty of people on my ‘often correct, but too hostile or difficult to pay attention to’ list.

Instead let’s return to the repeated part of the definition of bullying outlined above. I am reasonably well convinced that when people change their opinion from “the statement A is acceptable criticism” to “the statement A is an unacceptable attack” is when criticism is repeated.

And that’s a problem.

This is congruent with the nature of bullying as an ongoing situation, but it also offers the criticised researcher a marvelous defense — which is, to do absolutely nothing whatsoever in the face of criticism, to defend no ideas, posit no new calculations, and to say little.

And then, in the face of people’s ongoing frustration, to paint repeated and unengaged criticisms as motivated attacks. Any researcher finding themselves beset with serious criticism can either fail to understand it, or dismiss it entirely in safety.

It’s spectacularly intellectually dishonest, of course. It’s weaponising the inaction built into the publication system, and forcing critics to expose themselves repeatedly to get anything done. It is a very effective way to stifle debate, and comes with the added bonus of some ostensive moral high ground, where you ‘refuse to engage with unreasonable people’ or ‘do not dignify unmoderated attacks’.

It’s a clever strategy, in its way. But it’s also the signet ring of weak people defending weak ideas.

Science has a complicated relationship with conflict.

When we consider criticism in science, we are presented with two very strongly conflicting perspectives.

  1. Science is the fearless pursuit of truth, and is intolerant of bullshit and weak ideas. Hypotheses are rigorously tested because it is of great collective importance that they are repeatable and robust, and they are kicked right in the shins over and over again precisely because it is important that they should be strong enough to stand on their own. You must harden your heart against these situations, because they are both inevitable and necessary. As Susan Fiske says: “Contrary to human nature, we as scientists should welcome humiliation, because it shows that the science is working.” [2]
  2. Science is conservative, risk-averse, and is mostly full of people who are scared to rock the boat. The precariousness of employment is a factor (don’t burn bridges! don’t annoy anyone!), the massive power disparity between senior and junior researchers is factor, and the avoidance of vindictive people who will ‘bury your career’ is at the back of people’s minds. Serious criticism, even when 100% provably and demonstrably justifiable, is a bad career move.

So, which one is it?

Well, depending on your field and situation, it’s both. Both of these swirl around and raise their heads, at times.

Or it’s neither.

My explanation: I’ve covered this several times previously, but I think criticism, rather than either the fearless pursuit of truth, or the inflammatory act of a madman in an oversubscribed and hierarchical system, is simply bad for business.

It is much more comfortable, when funding is increasingly scarce, and criticism takes time and effort, and science would rather not be collectively portrayed as rife with dissent and garbage management procedures, for everyone to tacitly agree to live and let live. Do not attack other ideas, because it punctures our collective ability to represent ourselves as collectors of facts, it damages the profession. Instead, agree that ‘all ideas have some merit’, and get about your own business. Everyone has stuff to do, so let them do it — even if it wastes public money and other people’s time, even if it spawns whole fields and sub-fields which eventually run fallow. At least we kept the money in the tent.

Of course, you are still free to talk shit, break bones, and be an over-competitive lunatic. But not in public. Just reject people’s grants and papers the old fashioned way — when the community at large and general public can’t see you.

If this social contract fails, we fall back on another one, a kind of unhappy compromise with the ‘fearless pursuit of truth’ as above which says: “OK, so you’ve got a problem with something that’s been published, now take your shots, and then go away”. It is kind of a sop to the idea that criticism is robust, but it generally results in a little grandstanding and then no action.

It’s the kind of environment where Researcher A publishes something that’s Truly Awful And Wrong, Researcher B points out the problems in a commentary, and then Researcher A writes a formal response which says how interesting but anyway Researcher B probably wears dirty socks oh and look over there! A bird! and then the whole thing is expected to go away.

Researcher B’s persistence after this, rather than the desire to make sure the scientific record is accurate, is seen as axe-grinding, or somehow motivated by personal animus. Researcher B’s frustration at their breezy dismissal is seen as a sign of their shit critical personality coming to the fore. Researcher B’s discussion of the problem as it persists — as in the above section — is seen as ‘harping on’ or ‘ongoing persecution’. And so on.

It doesn’t matter if they’re right. It’s just accepted that they’re not ‘playing the game’.

[1] Converse — beware the Australian who calls you ‘mate’ in a clipped tone. “Listen, MATE…” is ten seconds away from you getting hit with a chair. Yes, “mate”. The friendly word. It’s complicated.

[2] I might have had a good laugh at this one. Also, I honestly wouldn’t go this far myself. ‘Welcome humiliation’ sounds a smidge too S&M to me.

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