Ten Rules For Not Being A Science-Dick
By James Heathers and Nick Brown
James, Introductory Note:
Oh God. My head.
I don’t mean I have a headache.
I mean someone drew my head, and it horrifies me.
If you ever wanted to see me dressed as someone whose name is probably Jimmy Stab-Pants or Joey “Crime-Nose” Faffalone, now’s your chance.
The above hideous depiction is from an article in Science Magazine, introducing my work with Nick. We investigate errors in science, usually social science. Not a lot of people do this work, and we’re quite good at it.
We have different styles, but it works. Nick is horrified of making mistakes, because he is English and decent. I am horrified of making mistakes because I am a massive egotist from a faraway planet, high on drugs that have not been invented yet.
The following is how we avoid being flung, headless and twitching, into the wicker crank basket with the rest of the online monstrosities.
Nick, Introductory Note:
I’m glad that James asked me to help write this piece.
Ever since I got started in the debunking business, my concern has been how not to be lumped in with the ‘wall of gammon’, a.k.a. all the other shouty 50-something white men on the Internet complaining about facts.
I haven’t always done as well as I could have at avoiding snarky public comments and over-hasty judgement, but hopefully I’m getting better. My very strong fear of making mistakes (and my inability to feel anything other than extremely bad when I do, even if it doesn’t impact other people very much) probably helps with this.
P.S. My head actually does look like that.
If you want to be a scientific critic, the primary problem you must overcome is that criticism is hard. When you criticize science in public, you are taking a complicated argument (what you’ve discovered), to people who don’t care very much (the journal where the offending article was published), about the work of someone who wishes you’d shut up (the authors).
This can be difficult to navigate. Although it’s often ‘a complete pain in the taint’ more than just ‘difficult’.
As much as we like to tell ourselves that science is self-correcting, this phrase really means science contains mechanisms that allow correction, rather than scientific problems will eventually fix themselves via some kind of intellectual osmosis.
However, we think we’ve done reasonably well at managing this process so far.
The most telling paragraph in Science’s description of our work was:
Despite the charged nature of their work — after all, careers can be on the line — Brown and Heathers have attracted surprisingly little criticism from their peers in science. In part, that’s likely because of their strategy of gently but methodically ratcheting up the pressure on authors and journals.
We have made arguments that people have listened to. More than occasionally, these arguments have resulted in a correction of the scientific record, and that’s something that allows people to take future criticisms more seriously. It’s generative — be useful and serious, and people will give you license to continue to be so.
In other words, people do not think that we are cranks.
More importantly, the people who need to be convinced before the formal scientific record can be corrected do not think we are cranks.
You can imagine that might help a smidge.
“Crank” is a pejorative term used for a person who holds an unshakable belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false. A crank belief is so wildly at variance with those commonly held as to be considered ludicrous. Cranks characteristically dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict their own unconventional beliefs, making any rational debate a futile task and rendering them impervious to facts, evidence, and rational inference
That is, we are not fault-finding where no faults exist, we are not misrepresenting things, we are not dismissing evidence, we are not rude (or, at least, not so rude that the police have been involved), and we are certainly convince-able. We convince each other all the time.
A: “Hey, XYZ has a bunch of problems”
*five minutes pass*
B: “You have missed something very obvious, and I don’t know how your wife puts up with you.”
We’ve both been both A and B.
Here’s something interesting though: we’ve seen quite a lot of scientific criticism from other people by now, from a variety of angles. And quite often it doesn’t really have the same … cut-through.
Specifically, plenty of criticism exists that one or both of us think is potentially or probably valid, and it ends up being totally ignored. The reason for that is generally the delivery — it is where crankery meets dickery.
So, while this article is called How Not To Be A Crank, it might be better titled How Not To Be Seen As A Crank, or simply How Not To Be A Dick.
Basically, if you’re right and everyone hates you, you’re ineffective.
Oh, you can hear the retorts now:
“BUT I’M RIGHT! “
Yeah, and no-one cares. Do you want to be right at home by yourself, or would you prefer your opinions result in outcomes outside of your apartment?
“BUT I AM A HARSH AND UNCOMPROMISING CRITIC”
No-one wants to tell you how to feel, or how to be, this is simply a series of points that might help other people care. Maybe even as much as you do.
Let’s say you think you’ve found a serious problem with a scientific paper or argument, and you’d like to tell people. Here’s how to not be a crank about it:
1. Calm. Down.
No-one else thinks your problems are as important as you do. Bellowing them, as much as it might be tempting, will shut down everything.
It’s amazing this needs to be said, but everything you do will be seen through an emotional prism if you bring a skinful of raw emotion to the table. If you’re highly emotional, people will just assume you’re irrational.
Now we’ve got that out of the way…
2. Don’t be a dick.
Scientific criticism does not exist in a social vacuum. Rather, people exist at every layer of the critical process. Criticism of ideas they publish, represent, or promote will hurt their feelings and their bottom line. Period.
This is why you should try not to make it worse by criticizing the people involved too much. It is very hard to avoid calling someone dishonest if they display a continual pattern of totally demonstrable dishonesty, because they probably are. It’s just usually not helpful.
So, think what you think, but don’t do it in public. Keep the trash talk for Skype, Twitter, or Facebook DM group where you hang out with your fellow destructo-critics. Let off the steam when you have to. You may deal with venal, terrible, dissembling people who drop dirty underpants in the soup of human progress, but put on your best Pan Am smile, and write the story up for the public with as much professionalism as you can muster.
What is infinitely worse than the above, though, is when remarks are personal and gratuitous. Dickery is unnecessary — whisper campaigns, rumour mongering, abuse, ‘anonymous notes’ and blackballing aren’t illegal but they are still dickish.
And death threats (and trolling, and weird online gender-flavoured violence) are not just deeply unpleasant, they’re CRIMES. If you do this, you are breaking the law AND being a shit human being, and you should either stop or walk yourself into the sun.
On a selfish level for us, at least, this sort of behaviour is also counter-productive. Your behaviour is an immediate invitation for the targets of criticism to paint us all with the same brush. Of course this painting is wretchedly dishonest, but you’re practically INVITING them to throw every objection they receive overboard because a small proportion of them contain dickishness. Basically, you’re defanging real criticism because you’re behaving like a child.
Frankly, those of us working in error detection / meta-science topics would like to round up anyone giving ammunition to the “all critics are mad dogs” argument, and have them pushed into a giant fan.
Now, after these two, a lot of the heavy lifting is done. The rest is just candy, but important candy nonetheless.
3. Pick one font. Make it black.
What is it with frothing anger and three fonts with red highlighting? Did you transcribe this from your initial notes in crayon? Pick a normal format for communication, one which doesn’t look like you spend the rest of your time fingerpainting, and stick to it.
4. Write complete sentences. Not too long.
What it is with crankery and the inability to write anything but run-on sentences? If you look like you can’t write, you won’t be read. If you know how to write academic language, why would you abandon that now — at the precise time that you need someone to take you seriously?
5. Make friends
“I am a warrior from the frozen north, and I bow to no master!”
Great. How very masculines of you. When you’re quite finished, admit your weaknesses and make some friends.
If you are not in academia, this is even more important. Having a PhD conveys gravitas, as does a .edu e-mail address. Is that fair? Maybe. Either way, if you don’t have either, many people will assume by default that you are a crank, especially in fields that attract controversy.
But: if you can legitimately say that Dr. Marvin Bigshotte of The University For Special Clever Chaps has read your work, the editor may give your complaint a hearing.
However, if you can’t find anyone in academia who’ll take you seriously, ask yourself why.
Hint: It almost certainly isn’t a conspiracy against your bold and trenchant political stance. Very few academics are so corrupt that they won’t take half-decent scientific arguments into consideration.
This especially helps when you have to…
6. Ask someone you trust if you’re making sense
The midnight hour makes us all a bit weird, and if you’re up late hounding some problem you’ve dug out of a manuscript you’ve found, well, you might have lost the plot completely. The best indication that you’re making sense comes from other people. Ask them before you send things to the wider world.
We’ve both made some severe errors in public by pointing out “obvious” errors in cases where we had simply missed that the authors had, in fact, taken everything into account. You can get away with this once or twice, but you need to keep your hit rate WAY above 50% to be taken seriously.
The irony is: most of you have forgotten about these. But we haven’t. And you can’t police yourself. Enlist the help of people who’ll tell you you’re wrong.
7. Don’t CC the entire world
If you get a reputation as an iconoclast, even if it’s a sub-Z-grade reputation, people will start to treat you as a banner carrier. This means, apparently, that in any given dust-up it’s OK to suddenly cc you into random email chains which are the length of a Tolstoy novel and about as much fun.
This is rude, and odd. The response to you doing this will be “I don’t know the first thing about the topic you’re roping me into, I don’t know you, and I don’t owe you anything.”
Suddenly inserting members of the public into methodological criticism to be a passive audience doesn’t give you any cachet, it just grots up inboxes.
8. Accept it when no-one cares, and move on.
So you have a problem with something someone published, and you tried to get someone else to care, and they don’t. What should you do now? If your answer is SCREAM LOUDLY FOR YEARS then you fail. Minus ten points from Yellingdor.
Basically, if you start by prosecuting your original arguments ineffectively, no-one will listen when you send them your 27th email.
There’s a certain arrogance to this: you alienate people, and then having done that, you insist that they listen to you. There’s no engagement in these emails, they are just screaming I AM RIGHT over and over again.
The moment someone thinks ‘oh, THIS again’ about something you’ve written you’ve already lost. You’ve lost the right for someone to take you seriously.
This still applies if you “know” you are right, and indeed even if multiple independent experts in the field all confirm that they think you’re right too. Talk about it, shout about it, get people onside, but don’t be surprised when no-one cares.
We have a heaving drawer full of serious, actual, real problems with scientific papers. They aren’t going anywhere because either the editors or one (or both) of us think that life is too short.
Is this fair? No. So be it. Teaspoon of concrete time.
9. If you are without doubt, you are wrong.
Cranks don’t doubt. Their frame is inappropriate — it is I know and you don’t, and never I think I have a better idea.
If you know you’re right, you’re probably wrong.
We feel this all the time, even dealing with terrible work from terrible researchers. Even when we’re often right. Even finding the 120,000th mistake, the first thought should always be “Maybe I’m wrong this time.”
10. Words matter. Stay away from using the harsh ones.
Don’t say fraud, don’t say fabrication. Don’t say reprehensible, irresponsible, stupid, reckless. Don’t say cowardice, malice, idiocy. Do not use the adjectives massive, colossal, wondrous, or monstrous. Do not call the righteous fury of the heavens to blast your enemies asunder. You are not Gandhi, or Caligula, or Immortal Technique. You are an old man(*) with a Yahoo email address.
You’re allowed a ‘problematic’ on a good day. Describe problems in functional terms. DON’T attempt to sum up the character of the authors, journal editors, or anyone else for that matter.
Yes, even if they ARE stupid, malicious, irresponsible cowards responsible for massive fabrication.
Remember, you get no leverage from being right. You get leverage from other people accepting that you’re right. Does that frustrate you? Then take up gardening.
(*) Yes, MAN. Most cranks are men.