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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) November 9, 2015
- On critical reviews, and reviewers
- Everyone loves to say things are broken.
- Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge
- Science is hard, but it’s fun: I have the best job on the entirely planet
*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.