Praise

Two things caught my eye last week that got me thinking about praise. First, I realized I’d been on Twitter for exactly a year; and second, I saw (HT Friday Links at Dynamic Ecology) this commentary on the rarity of “negative” citations in immunology*.

I can draw a connection**. Scientists are encouraged to be skeptical and critical, but in each case I see evidence that we’re often very (surprisingly?) nice to each other. One of my greatest fears joining Twitter was that it would turn out to be one of those cesspools of internet trash-talk. And that does happen (of course), but overall my impression is that science users of Twitter, at least, are phenomenally positive and supportive. People are “excited” to visit each other and “honoured” to give talks, blog posts are “thoughtful”, and collaborators and students are “fantastic” – which can even seem a little cringe-worthily mushy and sycophantic until you get used to it. And the rarity of negative citations? Because we’re told science makes progress by overturning previous results, and because we’re trained to be critical of published papers, and because everyone has a Reviewer #3 story they love to tell, you’d think we’d be tearing each other to shreds at every opportunity. Apparently we don’t.

When I was a grad student, we spent most of our time in journal clubs and lab meetings savaging what we read. We decided that every paper was flawed and (I’m now embarrassed to admit) that every author was incompetent and usually dishonest. It never occurred to us to identify an experiment that was clever or a passage that was beautifully written. I think this was all peer driven: we thought that was how science was supposed to work, and the person who came up with most cutting dismissal of someone’s work felt disturbingly proud of it. Over the years, though, I’ve come to think very differently. I no longer think that careful examination of ideas means being perpetually critical of science and scientists; and I’ve come to value the awarding of praise more than criticism. Of course this doesn’t mean being uncritical of what you read, or dishing out insincere flattery. But it does mean taking every opportunity to recognize, and praise, effort and achievement by the people who do science.

So if someone writes, says, or does something you think is good, announce it – both to the writer/sayer/doer, and to those around them. If you’re watching how someone runs a lab, notice and celebrate their small acts of mentorship and kindness, not just their competitive edge. If you’re grading a midterm, use your red pen to mark students correct, or clever, or original, as much as you do to mark them wrong. If you’re reviewing a manuscript, point to the best parts as well as to those needing revision. Praise will help its recipient deal with their imposter syndrome (they have it; we all do). It will predispose them to pay the favour forward. It will make you feel better too, ensuring you spend time thinking about the good news in science, not always about the latest thing everyone is proclaiming to be broken. Deliver such praise even for (no, especially for) people with whom you otherwise don’t agree, or who you don’t really like. Almost no human being is monolithically wrong, monolithically unlikeable, or monolithically malevolent – and recognizing someone’s best tendencies will help you, and those who hear you, remember that that’s true. (No human being is monolithically right, either, and while this shouldn’t stop us from calling out misbehaviour when we see it, we should remember our own complexities when we think about the behaviour of others.)

I know all this seems both trivial and irritatingly new-agey. But while science is often fun, it’s also hard. That paper you’re reading or that review you’re resenting was written by a person just like you – someone who works as incredibly hard as you do and has undoubtedly given up all kinds of opportunities in order to do their part in pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge. And it’s an achievement, even if you can find a flaw. We can deliver praise without imperiling our methodology of critical thinking or our identity as critical thinkers; and in doing so, we can support the members of our scientific community as we’d like to be supported ourselves.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) November 9, 2015

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*About 2%, which I suspect (in a data-free kind of way) is close for my own field, too.

**I can always draw a connection. If you’ve played Pictionary with me, you’ll know it’s about the only thing I can draw.

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8 thoughts on “Praise

  1. jeffollerton

    Yes, I’d agree with all of that (though not using red pen – I switched to green or black a long time ago, though now almost all of our grading is done electronically!)

    “When I was a grad student, we spent most of our time in journal clubs and lab meetings savaging what we read.”

    I recognise that too and I think it’s also due to the fact that as grad students we didn’t fully understand just how difficult it is to “do” science, and in particular to collect original data. It’s something that particularly worries me in the future as more and more PhDs are awarded in macroecology etc. where the student has used secondary data that they did not themselves collect.

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  2. Markus Eichhorn

    Who knows, it might also help improve the mental health of scientists, or the retention of brilliant people who might be less resilient to the combative nature of much scientific discussion. I feel lucky to be in a field which has always appeared to me to be very friendly and supportive, but then again I’m an arrogant, heterosexual white male in a large research university, so my perspective isn’t exactly the best for judging that.

    You’re completely right about the competitive negativity of journal clubs. Much the same applies to those who search for the ‘killer question’ in seminars or conference talks, rather than asking out of genuine interest. Likewise those who mark students down from an expected standard instead of recognising levels of achievement.

    When I first began marking, the teaching administrator would hand over the pile of student scripts and ritually utter the platitude “Nice things happen to nice people”. I didn’t believe him, or see its relevance to my teaching, and tended to ignore it. More than a decade later I’ve discovered that being constructive and positive in feedback makes students more likely to respond to it, learn from it, and to interact with me in a healthy way. All this makes the experience of teaching much more pleasant. So he was right after all.

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  3. Elizabeth Moon

    Excellent advice. Positive reinforcement works, produces desired healthy changes in behaviors (and in attitudes) …and is doggone hard to remember when someone’s stepped on your personal hot buttons. Even more important, then, to look for something to reward.

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  4. Disappointed

    I think there might be a danger in all of these “thoughtful” ways of academic behaviour. In my opinion it often becomes totally unclear which party is right and which is wrong. Just watch any “discussion” in which two parties are being interviewed. It almost always leaves many questions unanswered, many faulty logic or “facts” not being scrutinized, and essentially becomes a matter of opinion. It essentially makes “science” non-scientific.

    With all due respect, the above piece is exactly why i gave up on science. It depicts the general way in which discussions go or “facts” are talked about: “a is wrong/right/important/not important but so is b”. Sentences like “We can deliver praise without imperiling our methodology of critical thinking…” or “Almost no human being is monolithically wrong, monolithically unlikeable, or monolithically malevolent” are primary examples of this. This way of discussing things will bring us nowhere in my opinion.

    It does make it an excellent environment for shady research to keep getting published, cited, and payed for by the tax-payer. It is of no surprise therefore that there is a “vast graveyard of undead theories” (http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/6/555.abstract), and that people like Diederik Stapel could scam the entire field of social psychology for years and years (http://news.sciencemag.org/people-events/2012/11/final-report-stapel-affair-points-bigger-problems-social-psychology).

    I don’t want to hear what is great about my paper, i want to hear what is wrong so i can improve it. Because in my opinion, that’s the only way in which science progresses, which is kind of the point. It would be more beneficial that scientists criticize rather than praise, and in this time of “scientific crisis” i am truly disappointed by this post. Disappointed, but not surprised, which is perhaps telling…

    I am off to praise my baker, he made excellent bread this morning and i am sure he will make even better bread when i praise him.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      If I understand your point, it’s that offering praise when we see good science is incompatible with critical thinking and detecting fraud. I hope that isn’t true. (An interesting post would be whether or not this is really a time of “scientific crisis”. We read that a lot, but I’m unconvinced.) Anyway, I hope your baker appreciates your praise 🙂

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    2. jeffollerton

      Surely the scenario that you describe – in which all that’s ever done is to criticise scientists and their work, and subject both to negative feedback, will have the same result as over-praise: to make it impossible to distinguish sound science from poor science. If we never say “this is good science” how can science progress?

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