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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24 thoughts on “Making people angry

  1. Marco

    Nice post! Anyone who has an online presence is a potential target for haters, unfortunately. It seems that people feel much more comfortable expressing their rage online than in person, and the conventional behavioral breaks do not work on social media. Maybe that is so, because we evolved our social skills over millions of years of real-world interaction. Virtual interaction began just yesterday in evolutionary terms, so did not have enough time to develop appropriate protocols for it.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Marco! You’re right, there’s nothing at all unique about my experience; in fact, I’m sure I have it very easy compared to women, people of colour, people who blog about climate change (more than I do), politicians, and the list goes on.

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Marco

        At least here in Brazil, the best way to collect haters it to discuss politics on a blog or social media. That’s why avoid it like a facehugger! 😉

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  2. Anna Carter

    Personally speaking, if we reach a societal point at which the thoughts I espouse that make people irrationally angry are primarily about science/research, I’ll be pretty f-in happy.

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  3. Macrobe

    Participating in social media -blogs, tweets, FaceBook, etc.- involves a high risk of being targeted by trolls and spam. Unfortunately it is the nature of the global social media beast. After one episode of being seriously hacked, stalked, and harassed (even at work), and involving three lawyers, I exited the Internet community completely for a year. Another incident occurred, albeit much less intense, four years ago.

    On the advice of some seasoned bloggers, of which three are fellow scientists, I’ve learned to develop “thicker skin”, but also a strategic rapid response of managing trolls and spammers, and especially those that are unreasonably angry or abusive. One is to decide what to simply ignore, delete, or report. Most are all bark with no bite. But be cautious for the possible bite and assault of a rabid dog.

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  4. Jeremy Fox

    Can’t believe you left “p-values” off your list. 🙂

    Also, I don’t have any idea either why (a minority of) scientists get publicly angry on the internet about the scientific topics on your list, but not about other scientific topics. But I do have a tentative hypothesis for why the topics people get angry about on the internet will always be a fairly short list, relative to the effectively-infinite list of all the things you could imagine them getting angry about. That is, why is internet anger “clumped” around a comparatively short list of topics rather than evenly diffused across all possible topics? Hypothesis: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/12/24/the-biggest-game-in-town/

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  5. cinnabarreflections

    You wrote: “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.”
    Perhaps that is true, but in my experience many academics are very single-minded and surprisingly sensitive to criticism of any sort (incidentally, I don’t feel that way about my own discipline – entomology. Why that is would be a good topic to explore….I have some thoughts on it). Anything stated that threatens their own worldview gets a disproportionately vigorous protest response. Perhaps the raging blog readers are the same folks who get furious when a paper is rejected by an editor!? I’m sure you have encountered those!

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  6. Brian McGill

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that the more mathy/techy topics are prominent in the list of topics people rage about. Having spent 9 years in the computer industry and now 21 years in biology the two have very different cultures. The tech culture is much more confrontational and ego based and prone to shouting matches. It is not hard to speculate that that is in part because of the high proportion of males in that field, but it has to be more than that too. But regardless I am very happy to not be in that culture anymore. But I do think that different culture drifts into the ecology world with techy topics.

    The open access energy clearly comes from a different place. I’ve never quite understood it. But it approaches a religious fervor.

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    1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

      I would consider myself an advocate of Open Access, but a rather moderate one, cause I understand some of the limits. I’ve also witnessed the ‘religious fervor’ and I think part of the reason is because it’s framed as a revolution. A revolution by young researchers who feel their future is bleak against old fogeys that just ‘don’t get it’. I participated in the first OpenCon, which was a great experience, but you could see how it was more than just a change in a mode of operation. It was about creating a new community of leaders.
      I think this is a fertile ground for absolutists.

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Very interesting anthropological insight.

        Now I’m really curious to see polling data on how attitudes about not just open access publishing, but everything else on Stephen’s list and more besides, correlate (or not) with attitudes about academia and with one’s own perceived career prospects.

        Now I’m also curious if attitudes about the various items on Stephen’s list tend to correlate with one another. Ok, I’m pretty sure the people who are passionate about, say, open access publishing often are also passionately in favor of other “open science” things like using R, posting preprints, data sharing, etc. But are they also more likely than randomly-chosen scientists to be (say) passionately against p-values, passionately in favor of giving everyone a small research grant, passionate about the place of calculus in undergraduate biology curricula, etc.? And if so, is that just a coincidence, or do those people see connections among those various causes that aren’t evident to people who are less passionate about them?

        I’m thinking for instance of Paul Ehrlich, whose passionately-held views on human population size and growth dictated his stances on lots of other things that (to many others) didn’t have any particularly important connection to human population size and growth. For instance, Ehrlich was very anti-immigration because he didn’t want immigrants to come to the US from poorer countries and then start consuming resources at the high per-capita rate typical of US residents.

        Anecdotally, you do see this sort of thing with some really passionate open access advocates. I’ve seen a prominent open access advocate argue that scientific societies need to make their journals author-pays open access. And his response to concerns that this would blow a hole in society budgets and undermine all the useful science-supporting work scientific societies do, he questioned the value of everything scientific societies do, and said casually that anything they do that’s truly worthwhile could easily be funded by member donations or applying for grants from other nonprofits. To me, that’s a sign that you’ve started to care about a single focal issue too much–when you see even unrelated issues through the lens of that one focal issue you’re passionate about.

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      2. Brian McGill

        A very nice and very astute analysis of the situation. I myself am not opposed to open access. But as Jeremy noted, when open access turns into paying a for profit company $3000 being preferred over a mixed author pays a little, subscriber pays a little model that supports non-profit societies for a much total lower cost and higher benefits, I’m off the train.

        I wonder how one works people like Michael Eisen (radical open accesser but also quite successful established scientist) into this model? Although of course at this point he has a vested personal interest as a founder of PLOS.

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  7. theresakishkan

    As a non-scientist, though with wide-ranging interests in botany, ethnobotany, ecology, etc., I just want to say how much I enjoy your posts. They are thoughtful and clear and I always learn something. So thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Shaun

    I have constantly evolving opinions on those topics too. So at different times I would probably have been making different people angry…

    Take OA for example. When I had ample access to as much literature as I needed, open access wasn’t a big priority for me – all OA was doing was feeding low quality and predatory journals by normalizing the APC business model. But now I’m somewhere that doesn’t have great journal subscriptions I’m thinking, “How can I make my papers open access, for less $, preferably without sacrificing prestige?” and “Damnit, how are people in Germany, France, and Sweden going to read my work so they can cite it?”. Now I think gold OA is the vanity press, green OA is a generator of externalities (I publish for free, everyone else pays), and subscription is just the privatization of public wealth.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I like that your assessment is more complicated than the ragers’ – but I’m curious, why do you equate “subscription” with “privatization of public wealth”? There are a lot of subscription journals run by societies and other nonprofit entities; and there’s a lot of private wealth that pays for subscriptions (e.g., at private universities).

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      1. Shaun

        This is why you make people angry – using reason and facts etc 😉

        I am not sure how I feel about nonprofit and society journals available under a subscription. Many of them have had their management outsourced to the big publishers like Wiley etc. which is a perfectly reasonable thing fora society to do. The big publishers do a good job – that’s why they are big publishers. I guess I would say it’s problematic insofar as I agree with the general push towards open access that we should be making science more freely available. But it really depends on the model used. Some society journals use a delayed open access model and involve costs to both authors and subscribers. I actually think that this is a very smart compromise position. I don’t need to get permission to reuse my own stuff and the society can make a few dollars from subscriptions which it then puts back into scholarly communication.

        The big publishers on their own though – it’s mostly publicly funded research (mine is 100% taxpayer dollars) given to them to for free (or even paying page charges) to publish and sold back to us. My universities have all received only small amounts of private money so most of what we have is from government grants and student fees. I’m very conscious that the value we create is off the backs of taxpayers and the debts mostly 18-22 year olds.

        So my opinions are still evolving – I actually mostly like the end product that Elsevier, Wiley and Springer put out even though it is just copy-editing, typesetting, and web design. And if given a choice between a Hindawi journal and an Elsevier journal, I’ll publish with Elsevier. But I don’t understand why we haven’t managed to come up with models for scholarly communication that make quality work available for everyone without ransacking library budgets.

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  10. David Tng

    Hi Stephen,

    I have been following your blog for a while and have learnt a lot from it. I salute you for openly speaking about these topics and I think stirring up some of these issues is a pre-requisite for positive change. I might even suggest you stir up the issue of the current postdoc system – i.e. the state of academia (lots of PhDs coming into the market, many perpetual postdocs, and a seemingly diminishing number of tenured academic appointments) to generate more rage. Whether or not you do this in a published post, I would love to know your opinions about it.

    Cheers,
    David

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