TL;DR: The tone-police police on social media must take responsibility for silencing early career folks in psychological science debates on social media. I also talk about rude dudes, a dinner with Dawkins, and Coyne calling my work “insufferable pomposity”.
Introduction: the tone-police police and social media
We founded a roleplaying website in 2001 that quickly became one of the largest German RPG forums, with over 15,000 members. While I’m not active anymore, I spent many years moderating this forum, and it was rare that moderators disagreed about what was ok to write, and what was not ok.
In debates about psychological science on social media, the question of what is ok to say seems much more contentious. One camp claims that there is a “tone-police” that stops important scientific discussions, another takes the position that there is no space for personal attacks in scientific debates.
Interestingly, these two camps are reasonably well reflected by two Facebook groups about psychological research: PsychMap (current n=6,516) and the Psychological Methods Discussion Group (sometimes jokingly referred to as PsychMad, also by its members, and I will use the term here simply because it’s shorter; current n=12,008). Both groups are public in the sense that if you don’t violate basic terms, you can join them and read up on what people posted prior to you becoming member, and I am on the Community Board in PsychMap and administrator in PsychMad. And for what it’s worth, I very much appreciate both groups, and think of them primarily as places where 1) scientific discussions can take place, 2) where I learn about new papers or blogs or developments, and 3) where especially early career researchers can ask all kinds of questions.
In my social media community, one of the most common tone violators is Dr James Coyne, a professor emeritus associated with the Universities of Pennsylvania and Groningen with over 43,000 citations, a Wikipedia entry, and over 7,000 twitter followers – certainly someone who wields academic power. Coyne is well known for both his academic achievements and his harsh language, and while I sometimes find myself on his side in scientific debates (e.g. about open science or clinical trials), he regularly generates incidences particularly well suited for tone discussions. Many of you have seen him swear on social media, and he regularly tells people to fuck off or calls them rude pricks (the irony). He’s so notorious for his verbal abuse that The Times recently featured Coyne in an article entitled “Scientists trade insults over myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) study” (via Stuart Richie) with colorful invectives like “disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite”.
Now, many of you don’t care about this sort of thing. But you also know many others do care, which means they will not disagree with people like Coyne publicly or on social media because it poses a substantial perceived risk, not only in terms of reputation .. there may be actual career consequences (I will talk about my friend below to show you how).
Allowing or condoning this sort of language has two consequences, then. First, it’s bad for science, because we don’t get all arguments on the table. Second, people who do not speak up will disproportionately be young academics (I think about it as censorship via social pressure). Which leads to my main point here: if you are part of the more extreme tone-police police, you have to own the responsibility for these two consequences. This pertains to moderated social media like Facebook where we could delete such posts, but also to Twitter where we could say:
“Dude, not ok”. 1
And I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the community to react to the very clear-cut cases by telling researchers that this type of language is not ok in scientific discourse.
Let’s summarize a few points and implications.
1. Grey areas
There are grey tone areas that can be very difficult to navigate. What constitutes a personal attack, and what doesn’t? I used to live in the US, and now I live in the Netherlands, and it is striking how stark tone differences are. Try giving a Dutch student US-like thesis feedback — “I like it, but you may want to consider the possibility to perhaps work on the structure a bit” — the student will hear “THIS IS AMAZING” and not move a finger. In the US, this would be a pretty clear “you really need to work on this”. And this is a generalization of course, there are differences in the US as well. I lived in Ann Arbor MI for a while, and it’s a truth universally acknowledged that people in the Midwest are the kindest people on Earth, bar none. Traveling to NYC was a culture shock for me, and moving back to Berlin was heartbreaking (“why does everyone hate me”).
But this blog is not about grey areas. I’m talking about clear-cut bullying and name-calling, personal attacks, the things we as a community should identify and decide it’s not what we want. And these cases show that the assertion “tone never matters” is incorrect (which does not mean that the opposite, “tone always matters”, is correct).
2. No harm done in being polite
I cannot come up with even one single reason ever to justify writing mean and personal things in a scientific discourse. If anything, invectives weaken your point. You have a scientific argument to make, so go make it. If you get carried away, and we all do (including me, and please call me out for it), delete your comment, or edit it, or leave it and apologize. We’ve all said things we regret, and that’s okay. But there are folks who have the habit of doing this regularly, and others who keep defending them, and I just don’t understand why you would ever defend crass language. And while this point is easier to make featuring one or two of the most known tone-offenders, I don’t think it’s fair to say that this debate is irrelevant apart from a few rude dudes 2 .. many otherwise sensible folks can make these mistakes – we’re only human, after all.
3. Plenty of harm done being impolite
If you do the Coyne in a scientific discussion on social media, the discussion is not scientific anymore, and cannot be. It’s the best way to stop a debate, and no longer has the goal of learning or finding out things. People are people, and if you call them rude prick, it establishes a denial to participate in a scientific debate, although people often pretend to continue to do so. Which is honestly as bad as it gets, if we are talking about having scientific debates on social media. Scientific debates that have the potential to lead anywhere require some basic level of human decency and mutual respect, and if you cannot bring that to the table, you’re not engaging in a scientific debate.
4. Don’t mix up tone and topic
Topic and tone are different things, and both sides tend to mix these up to distract. In situations I thought the tone was just fine, people tried to distract from substantive arguments by crying “tone! tone!”. On the other hand, when the tone was not ok (e.g. “imbecile”, see below), I’ve seen folks deflect critique by saying that you’re terrible for disagreeing with them on the substantive topic or research question, when the critique was about the language used. It makes sense to more separate tone and topic in future debates. Coyne pulls this off regularly. In response to a tweet about the Times article on Coyne’s foul language mentioned above, I posted a screenshot of one of his verbal Facebook lapses (also known as the “rude prick” incidence). Shortly thereafter, he responded with:
This is a lie – I never tweeted about the PACE trial, nor mentioned it on other social media. It’s a cheap maneuver, but exactly what I described above: to deflect the argument “that’s not ok to say things” by pretending you’re disagreeing with substantive topics.
5. Theories and people are weirdly intertwined in social sciences
Theories in social sciences are usually not formalized. This means that if I want to truly understand an idea, I usually have to ask the author because many of the second-order implications are unclear: the theory of person X is confounded with the theory about topic Y (think Drs Cuddy or Baumeister). The first time I noticed this was for my master thesis, in which I tried to write an agent-based model of humans interacting in an evolutionary environment to see whether depression as described in the evolutionary psychology literature could potentially have beneficial outcomes. It was impossible, because literally 0 of the 20 parameters I wanted to define to run the model where described anywhere in the literature. In my experience, this is much less the case in fields with formalized theories, and is one of the main reasons that people tend to get so defensive because it is their theory.
What to do about it? This is a huge topic, and beyond the scope of the blog, but others have argued that we need a discipline entitled theoretical psychology tasked with the formalization of hypotheses, that we need more mathematics and equations, that we ought to move closer to natural sciences. My suggestion: devote some efforts in your lab towards falsification of your own theories. Maybe block 2 labmeetings a year to discuss how to best falsify your ideas, set up student projects, start with small things. But show some effort that you are in principle willing to be ok with the possibility that your idea might turn out wrong. It may be something that we need to actively practice to become better at it.
6. Real consequences
Tone can just be tone .. foul language alone a drama does not make. But some psychologists wield considerable power about careers of young researchers, via reviewing grant proposals, applications, papers, et cetera. My .. friend, for example, is a depression researcher currently living in the Netherlands, is looking for a job at the moment, and it’s entirely possible that Coyne (also depression research, also associated with a Dutch university) will be a reviewer on his job or grant applications.
Now, that’s a pretty rare case of course, but it’s an actual example, and we’re back to censorship: people not speaking up because they are worried that there might consequences, reputational or otherwise. And I’m not a very anxious person, but I get worried about this sort of stuff, and readily admit that I lost quite a bit of sleep over Coyne’s lie I mention above3, because it looks like a famous scientist is actively using social media to harm my scientific reputation. And if people do that sort of thing, and are known to be petty and vindictive, there is legitimate concern this might have career consequences, and that worries me. Which leads me to believe that there are many other people worried about this, too.
Now I’m going to disagree with Chris here:
Don’t fall into the sanctimonious trap of being concerned about tone on behalf of others. No, you are not the voice of early career researchers or the vulnerable or Nixon’s silent majority. All of these communities can speak for themselves, and they do, especially in the flat landscape of social media. Yes, your crappy anecdotes about some researcher who really wanted to be open but was put off by a sharp twitter discussion count for precisely dick.
I know quite a few people who have left psych social media communities like PsychMad because they felt uncomfortable with the tone and bullying, and many more who would never ever post on PsychMad because they’re terrified of making mistakes. There is already so much pressure on early career researchers, and now they not only have to worry about being called out for asking something that might possibly be wrong (which we should reward, not punish) – they also risk being told to fuck off with several thousand people reading, potentially friends, colleagues, or supervisors. And maybe Chris lets me off the hook here because I was an early career researchers not long ago, and maybe still am, so I’m mostly speaking for myself here and a bunch of people I know who would never say this sort of thing (I don’t assume I speak for anyone else).
7. Listening to critics vs shutting out bullies
After publishing this blog post I just listened to the new black goat podcast on my way home, and Alexa, Simine and Sanjay bring up a great point that is worth mentioning here, so I’ll edit in point 7: the difficult distinction between sucking it up and embracing criticism to grow and learn on the one hand – we do have a responsibility as scientists to listen to what others think about our ideas and projects – and shutting out bullies on the other. That’s a difficult area to navigate, and probably the hardest when someone calls out your work and makes a few substantive points that might be worth considering, but does so in a language that is highly offensive (and we’ve all had reviews like that).
There are many other examples of prominent researchers using foul language on social media, of course. I am a huge fan of Dr Dawkins’ work on biology, and am all for speaking out in favor of atheism, but I have often wondered why he has to be so goddarn rude sometimes. When I had the chance to talk to him at a dinner in 2012, I asked him, and he said he wasn’t really interested in convincing people who don’t share his opinion – the people he was being rude to. His interest was in catering to undecided people, who already doubt a little bit on their own, and who were not going to be offended by that sort of language. But I just don’t think that’s the case .. hell, I am sometimes offended, although there is no shred of religiosity in this Eikobot.
Dr Taleb is another example, a researcher with over 200,000 Twitter followers who is renowned for his rants, to the degree that there is actually a machine learning bot Twitter account (e.g. “I’M NOT FRAGILE, YOU’RE FRAGILE”) whose rants – according to some people – are indistinguishable from the real Taleb.
Let me conclude with the fantastic words of Dr Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, who blogged about the recent Taleb incident in which he not only was extremely rude towards historian Dr Beard, but also wrong:
Taleb, Beard, myself, and every other academic who takes the trouble to write for the public have a moral duty to be constructive, courteous, and careful with our evidence and arguments, practicing what is known as virtue epistemology. That, not name calling and insulting, is the way forward, in history, statistics, or any other field. 4
I should also follow my own advice and call out folks for inappropriate language, so here we go:
And you know what? It *did* bother him ;) ..
PS: Invective collection
This may or may not be Coyne’s opinion on this blog, but it is the term he used to summarize one of my recent papers. What have you been called?
- Dude here is obviously ungendered!
- It *is* a bit of a guy thing, no?
- And that while being on vacation .. grrr
- And, upon reading this, Taleb responded in kind, like a grown-up scientist, tough on the issue, soft on the person, with the goal to .. ah, who am I kidding.