Making people angry

Image: Rage, Deiby Chico via flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’ve been posting here at Scientist Sees Squirrel for three years and change, and in that time I’ve learned a few things.  I’ve learned that some posts are wildly popular, while others sink like very quiet stones.  I’ve learned that writing a post is a good way to find out what I think about something, and that leaving the comments open is a great way to find out what I’m missing in my thinking.  And I’ve learned that some topics make people very, very angry.

I’m not thinking of people who simply disagree with me.  There are plenty of those, of course, which is perfectly normal and very productive – at least when disagreement leads people to leave thoughtful comments that get me, and others, thinking.  Instead, what I’m thinking of today is people who, when they read about certain topics, become absolutely and incoherently enraged.  Sometimes, somebody will tweet a link to a post with a one-word “rebuttal” (sometimes the one word is “no”; other times it’s substantially less polite)*.  Sometimes, somebody will leave a scathing comment that instantly betrays that they didn’t read past the first paragraph. And my favourite: sometimes, somebody will comment that the position I’ve taken “shows that you haven’t thought carefully about the subject”.  I mean, just how self-absorbed does a person have to be to believe that the only explanation for someone disagreeing with them is that that someone hasn’t thought about the subject?

Which topics seem to spark this kind of incoherent rage?   It’s not random; my posts on Latin names rarely get anyone’s dander up**.  But here are a few (representative) topics that seem to provoke astonishing degrees of ire:

By the way, I’m aware that merely drawing attention to each of these posts is likely to provoke more outbursts of rage.  That will be ironic, of course, and I wish I could find it as amusing as I should.  Instead I’ll find it upsetting; but I’ll live with it.  That’s the price of putting one’s thoughts out there for all to see (why, exactly, do I do that?).

I’m not just grousing – there’s something interesting about this.  We’re scientists (at least, most of us; and if you’re not, don’t worry, you’re welcome here anyway).  We tell people that scientists – that we – are really good at arguing a case based on rational consideration of facts, and going where the data takes us.  We tell people that constructive critiques are part of science, because they lead us closer to truth. We tell people that the very nature of science is that we consider arguments and data, not emotion.  And yet, there seem to be topics – topics squarely inside the practice of science – where at least some of us don’t do these things at all.  It’s just weird to see something like open-access publication or calculus become the subject of the kind of apoplectic raving that we disdain in climate-change deniers and opponents of vaccination.  How, one wonders, do some bits of science, for a very few people, come to resemble cults?  (To be absolutely clear: it is, of course, only a very few people who blow up.  But those few are spectacular.)

I just can’t decide whether to be surprised about this.  After all, scientists are just like everybody else.  We have our blind spots, our irrational beliefs***, our pet peeves, our Buttons That Must Not Be Pushed.  And yet I can’t help thinking it’s not too much to ask folks to notice when they’ve strayed so far from the constructive discussion we all espouse.  Maybe that’s where I come down, actually: to understand, but not to approve.  What do you think?  Tell us in the Replies.  Just – please – don’t get too angry about it.

© Stephen Heard  May 22, 2018


*^Protip: if someone writes a 1,500 word essay on something, coming back with a one-word “rebuttal” might make you feel terribly clever – but it doesn’t make you look clever at all.

**^Except, mildly, for those who argue quite reasonably that I should be calling them “scientific names” rather than “Latin names”.  Here’s why I don’t think their case is airtight.

***^Here’s one of my own irrational beliefs.  I’ve abandoned it now, but I held it for an embarrassing number of years.

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Posts for conference season

Image: Empty session room, CC0 via MaxPixel.net

See that room in the photo above?  Soon I’ll be sitting in it, and you probably will too (most of the conferences I attend, at least, happen in the summer).  I just booked some travel, and that got me thinking conference season. Continue reading

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Image: Oxford English Dictionary, Mrpolyonymous CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com.  But no, the Oxford Dictionary is not in charge.

Who’s in charge of the English language?  Nobody, of course.  You might think that would make our writing easier; but actually, it makes it considerably harder.

Here’s something you see all the time: someone either asks a question about the rules of English, or insists that somebody else is breaking them.

  • “Can I start a sentence with an abbreviated genus name?”
  • “When do I use which and when do I use that?”
  • Decimate really means to kill only one in ten.”
  • “Everyone knows you can’t split an infinitive.”

If English were a set of rules, with some body in charge of enforcing them, then all questions like those first two would have simple, short, unambiguous answers, and all opinions like the latter two would be objectively either right or wrong.  But English isn’t a set of rules.  Continue reading

From ego naming to cancer screening: type I error and rare events

Image: Unicorn fresco by Domenichino (1581-1641), in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome, via wikimedia.org

Sometimes, thinking about science, I make odd connections.  Often, they seem odd when I first make them, but then I learn something important from them and wonder why I’d never made them before.  A good example cropped up the other day, when I realized that a peculiar feature of the scientific naming of organisms connects, via some simple statistics, to the difficulty of cancer screening, to reproducibility, and to the burden of proof for surprising claims.  Curious?  Here goes. Continue reading

Steal this syllabus! (or, how I taught Scientific Writing)

Image: Writing, CC0 by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels.com

 This semester, for the first time, I taught a course in scientific writing.  I was very scared going into it, but now that the course is over I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.  Several people who have taught similar courses were kind enough to share their syllabi with me, and that helped – so I’m going to pay it forward here.  If you might teach a writing course, or if you have colleagues who might, or if you’re just interested in how one might do such a thing, read on.  I’ll tell you a bit about the course, and down at the bottom I’ll post the syllabus and other course materials, which you are welcome to download and adapt for your own use. Continue reading

(More) reading on the history of natural history

Image: Chamaeleon, from Arcana, or, the Museum of Natural History (1811) by Thomas, Lord Busby (1811).  Which has nothing to do with the four books reviewed here; I just like the illustration.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Among the books, some are new, some are old; some are well known, some are obscure.  Here are four more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.  (There were six more in the first post in this series, here.)

Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America (Souder 2004, North Point Press).  This book, like its subject, is utterly fascinating.  I knew nothing about Audubon other than being familiar with his famous bird prints.  I assumed, somehow, that he was an upper-class gentleman with a distinguished family history.  In fact, he was a newcomer, born in Haiti and raised in France, and something of a ne’er-do-well: a serial exaggerator if not an outright liar, an atrociously poor businessman, and yet somehow an inspired artist who reinvented the depiction of natural history.  Continue reading

Collegial governance and crickets in the meeting room

Image: Two-spotted tree cricket singing, © Patrick Coin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Warning: a little bit grumpy.

I’ve just come back from a highly successful Departmental retreat: high turnout, engaged faculty and staff, and some genuine problem-solving.  But just as a sidewalk sighting of Manute Bol might make me realize that some of my friends are rather short, our successful retreat reminded me of a weird but not altogether surprising thing about university faculty.  That thing: everyone loves collegial governance, right up until somebody calls a meeting.

As a general rule, university academics feel very strongly about collegial governance. Continue reading