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:
- Open-access publication (more specifically, any suggestion that there might be some wrongs for which it’s not a magic bullet).
- Whether we should think of peer review as unpaid exploitation or part of our jobs.
- Whether granting agencies should allocate funds to a few big grants, or lots of small ones.
- The notion that statistics can be usefully done in platforms other than R.
- How we should best describe the same methods in a series of papers.
- The place of calculus in the undergraduate curriculum.
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.