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
So where do we go from here? I guess with a good example from a few days back. We should all commit to doing this regularly, because let’s admit, we’re all often wrong about things.
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 ;) ..
Thanks to Julia Rohrer and Rogier Kievit whom I discussed these topics with, and a colleague who prefers to remain anonymous because, quote: “I’m too scared of James Coyne yelling at me on Twitter”.
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.
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I recently met and spent time with Coyne and have to say, he’s very affable in person. An extremely smart guy who works hard. He presents himself as is and doesn’t polish things. I think he’s honest and consistently ethical. Social media as sole communication (particularly with character limits) can be a curse because the face-to-face context is removed. If you spoke with him and he cussed, you’d know it was quite tongue-in-cheek.
Perhaps I’m a bit biased as someone who also curses a lot and am fascinated by
language use and reactions to same.
As an early career academic I feel heartened to have someone like Coyne fighting doggedly for transparency. I have been so discouraged and upset by hushed bullying and fraud committed by colleagues who present a polite and glossy veneer to the outside world.
Hi, James! You ought to not be so obvious in your praise of yourself.
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There is no doubt that Prof Coyne has been an outstanding advocate for open data and the rigorous application of the rules in research. His dogged pursuit of those who break the rules is admirable.
However, having encouraged Prof Coyne to become involved in debunking the PACE trial, I experienced first hand, his boorish, bullying behaviour when I dared to express a contrary opinion and to stand up to his rudeness. Ignoring his insults , I thought that our private message encounter (via Twitter) had ended on good terms, but out of the blue he blocked me. It saddens me that he chose to do so, but that is how it has remained. C’est la vie.
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For what it’s worth, your “52 symptoms” paper is excellent, and devoid of both pomposity and insufferableness.
I thought the comment about the Netherlands and Thesis feedback was interesting. I work with a lab in China and I have learned that I need to change the way that I express feedback in order to be understood (even when language is not an issue). For instance, if I send out a draft of something and ask if someone has any feedback, I know that the answer is “no” if they change the topic or comment at moderate length about some other throwaway thing in my email.
Thanks Kyle. I’ve actually found it extremely time consuming to provide feedback to folks who have a very high bar on this sort of language thing. It makes reviewing a paper 3 time as much time intensive, because for every point you need to say “I love the abstract, but you could consider restructuring this and that” instead of just saying “I’d put this first and the other sentence later”. So when colleagues ask for feedback on drafts (outside of official peer-review), I am more inclinced to say yes when I know I can just be to the point and they won’t misunderstand.
When Coyne got involved with the PACE issue he quickly became a hero to a lot of people, because he was and is a pit bull in a way that the person who really got the ball rolling on PACE (outside the patient community, anyway, after years of patients being ignored, dismissed, mocked, gaslighted, wrongly accused of harassment, and told they were wrong on specific points whereas they have been proven correct all along, not that even one PACE supporter has apologized or even acknowledged that they were wrong), David Tuller, is not. Tuller is far more professional, and the horrible treatment of people on the basis of PACE and previously held beliefs about ME has elicited profanity out of even him, a well-respected journalist who has covered ME/CFS for the New York Times for nearly a decade.
Starting with the tweet to Isabel Hardman, some people started to get a bit uncomfortable with his tone. Nevertheless, he forged ahead with a campaign at PloS One to force the PACE team to release their data, which after all exists as the results of a publicly-funded study which is the basis for both governmental and insurance industry guidelines and health policy. He insulted one patient advocate here and another there, while finding himself relieved of his ability to post freely on his PloS blog in late 2015. But even with all of that, well, nobody really understands the impact of PACE or the severe nature of this disease, and a lot of people were and are willing to overlook a great deal in order to have someone like that fighting for us. I and a lot of others I know are quite uneasy with this; but he’s not going anywhere, and we have to take the bad with the good.
His bad behavior on Twitter & Facebook exploded one day nearly a year and a half ago when he took some horrible shots at a well-liked and respected patient who has done a lot of good for this cause we fight. I and a lot of others I know haven’t had any direct contact with him since, but we watch and see what he does, because it has a very real impact on us. Mostly positive. What he did was inexcusable, and it made the treatment you’ve seen of your colleagues look like a friendly exchange. But it’s not like he was going to be swayed by anyone trying to tell him what a bad move that was, regardless, even, of who was on the receiving end.
Some people who fight PACE see it as a struggle so important that nothing he does that could be considered rude is anywhere near as important, and I think that’s rather wrong. I don’t think it’s much to expect at least some semblance of civility. On the other hand, we get civility in spades from the PACE team and their allies, except when they’re dishonestly labeling us as ‘vexatious’ ‘militants’ who ‘harass researchers’ the same way climate change deniers do; and that civility, that odd gentlemanly patter (i.e. Simon Wessely deigning to interact with ME/CFS patients through email or on Twitter), is disingenuous and insulting, at best.
In the past week they’ve taken to comparing us to anti-vaxxers or proponents of homeopathy. This is done in spite of a plethora of robust evidence that proves the PACE conclusions to be not only faulty but downright harmful. The net effect is a denial of a proper diagnosis, let alone proper treatment, while the only ‘treatments’ offered have been shown to be physically harmful. The evidence against PACE has been published in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals, but in spite of prominent publications and recently altered guidelines in public health authorities such as the US CDC & NIH, they may as well be farts in the wind. Because we’re vexatious militants, harassing researchers like climate change denialists, like anti-vaxxers, like proponents of homeopathy. Heck, the US National Academy of Sciences convened an expert panel that issued a report that states that this illness is best characterized by an abnormal, multi-system response to exertion, which has been shown in a large number of studies over many years showing objectively measurable biological abnormalities. Yet the Science Media Centre in UK compares critics of the trial that concluded that exercise therapy could bring patients recovery to anti-vaxxers.
So that’s why people have mixed feelings about Coyne. Does he act this way because he perceives that the people responsible for our plight are vicious, corrupt bullies? Is it because that’s the way he is & can’t help himself? Hard to say, most of us have never met him & it wouldn’t be fair to say. Like many things in life, there are great positives when good work is done, and horrible downsides when he behaves in a manner that is simply incomprehensible considering his credentials, accomplishment, and reputation, let alone towards people who have done him no harm whatsoever. Most of us can only watch–I mean, it’s easy enough to give him a hard time on Twitter or something, but just as easy for him to block that person. Voila, problem solved. What he did to someone who did not deserve even a mild rebuke, let alone a nuclear bombardment of a verbal insult, still burns a lot of people. Yet what’s been done to literally millions of us, and which is now just starting to register on the radar of people who have long accepted ‘expert opinion’ on this disease is, yes, far, far worse.
For anyone reading this unaware of the issues in play, here are the three best and most relevant, followed by two examples of the contrary.
Regarding your last question: I’ve witnessed him behaving this way regarding matters of trivial real-world impact (i.e., statistics in social psychology studies that don’t have any direct impact on people like the PACE issue does) so I doubt it’s just because he’s so invested in the PACE fight; it’s more likely the second possibility you raise.
Well, nobody wants to have to deal with unnecessary crass personal insults, on the internet or anywhere else. But along the lines of what Polite Chap posed in his recent post below, as far as moral dilemmas, which is worse. Unnecessary, crass personal insults on the internet, or leaving horribly ill people in terrible pain, hundreds of thousands–no, millions–to rot in their beds, most without proper diagnosis, all without treatment, all plus their caregivers without hope, but with promises of recovery due to a bogus study that cost millions in taxpayer money & saw its researchers do everything they could to conceal anonymized raw data & paint critics as anti-science, along the lines of climate change denialists, anti-vaxxers, & promoters of homeopathy?
I’m not sure I entirely agree with how you answered my questions, as I might have inferred there was at least a bit of possibility #1, but what I was saying was more related to not wanting to make judgments as to someone else’s personal behavior when the behavior is enough to comment on without worrying about the motivation. Of course, we all do it, so what the hell. I certainly understand where you’re coming from. It’s just that this, perhaps more so than other scraps he has been involved with, or even created, involves a very large problem that affects an awful lot of people, and has for decades.
As if it weren’t enough being sick, we have had to do all our own research, and advocate for our cause. All we ever did was get sick. And now we’re forced to choose between one position that says what’s happened to us is a hell of a lot worse than a few cheap, nasty insults from a guy who might actually be right about most of his positions that others have to, unfortunately, endure; and another that questions how much of a loose cannon we’re supposed to be comfortable on our own side, especially given that his fire is occasionally aimed inward. Yet we have to wake up and live another day. Perspective is skewed enough with this illness. I’m not sure there is a good answer, let alone one we can be forced to try to provide.
I don’t recall anyone saying that what happened to you is worse than insults. This isn’t a zero-sum game. No one said that being concerned about his tone means we can’t be concerned about the PACE issue, or being concerned about the PACE issue means we can’t be concerned with the guy’s tone. You and “polite chap” below seem to be arguing that tone is not a problem because the issue is important. That is completely irrelevant to the point that was being made. Just because someone in the world is doing a worse thing doesn’t mean it’s ok for a researcher to go around insulting people. By that logic, there would only be one person in the world who can be criticized, whoever did the worst thing in the world; I could go around and shoot two people, but if anyone said that was a bad thing for me to do I could say “what’s worse, shooting two people, or killing thousands”? This is not an either-or thing, and if the strongest argument you guys can come up with in support of the guy is “well, at least it’s not making thousands of patients suffer in pain like PACE” then that is a pretty weaksauce argument.
-“You and “polite chap” below seem to be arguing that tone is not a problem because the issue is important.”
I don’t think that’s what either of use were arguing, and certainly not I.
I don’ think that the tone used in criticism on-line is as important as many other problems within psychological research, but that’s not to say that it’s of no importance.
– “I could go around and shoot two people, but if anyone said that was a bad thing for me to do I could say ‘what’s worse, shooting two people, or killing thousands’ ”
I don’t see how you got to that argument from what either of us said.
Highly ironic that PACE trial people are comparing critics to anti-vaxxers and homeopaths: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/treating-chronic-fatigue-syndrome-with-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-and-graded-exercise-therapy-how-the-pace-trial-got-it-wrong/
Very nice post and again a valuable addition to disrupt my bubble. Because I still am wondering how anyone can take a forum statement (and I have been moderating and participating in online fora since 1996) or (alas!) a twitter statement serious enough to a) feel seriously offended and b) to take anything said there so for real, that it is possible to cause real damage and consequences outside. But anyway, I have to deal with the fact that there are people out there who do. It all comes down to common decency from my point of view, and it does not matter if in science or public or private life. One does not yell at people and call them names. Fullstopp. And doesn’t a scientist who does not refer to scientific Standards in a debate makes him or herself utterly rediculous? And twitter? Seriously? A real scientific or personal debate? There? Maybe I am getting old.
Nice post, Eiko. A good (and more considered) counterpoint to my own.
As a patient who has been following the controversy around PACE for a number of years, I think that some of Coyne’s tweets are unreasonable and counter-productive.
I think that there is good reason for anger about the way in which results from this poorly conducted trial have been misrepresented, and then the patients who raised concerns about this were smeared, but that does not justify some of Coyne’s tweets.
However, I think that it does mean that some of the concerns expressed about tone can seem a bit trivial from the perspective of a patient who has faced years of stigmatising bigotry as a result of researchers failure to speak out about problems with research like PACE. I do not mean to dismiss the hardship some researchers feel that they face as a result of swearing on social media, but I do sometimes find myself thinking ‘wow – they really expect their lives to be much nicer than mine’.
Patients can be told, very politely, that their failure to effectively comply with ‘evidence based’ treatments like those promoted by PACE means their health problems cannot be assumed to be as limiting as they claim, leading to ineligibility to some forms of insurance or welfare support. The tone matters much less than the poverty.
Alem Matthees, the patient who secured the release of some of the data from the PACE trial which illustrated how researchers had spun their own results, has had his own health suffer so seriously as a result of this prolonged battle that he has been forced to move back to his family home, and is currently fully reliant on his parents for care. Other patients have been sending messages of support to his sister-in-law, as he himself is now too ill to engage with social media. In their campaign against his desire for data from the PACE trial and information about when protocol deviations were decided upon QMUL and the PACE team had branded his request for information ‘vexatious’ and attempted to present him as a part of a militant and dangerous campaign against science. It was only thanks to great skill and determination on his part that he was able to beat their £250,000 legal team, with the tribunal ruling that “activist behaviour was, in our view, grossly exaggerated”.
Is this at all relevant to the content of this blog? Even if mental health researchers are conducting junk-science and smearing the patients who criticise them, does this mean researchers should not be civil to one-another? Is it not that patients will be harmed when scientific discourse is debased by personal abuse? Maybe – but I think that it’s also a reflection of priorities. While there are many researchers now speaking out forcefully about the problems with the PACE trial, a minority of them are from the field psychology, even though this is perhaps the most pertinent field. Why is it that the ‘tone debate’ has attracted so much more discussion? What does this indicate about the priorities of the psychological research community?
Maybe it indicates that, as a community, you are a bit on the shitty side of things? Maybe a tiny bit of swearing might sometimes justified?
I can see that, for those troubled by Coyne’s tone (and some of the content that goes with that), it might be annoying that he happens to be on the right side of this important scandal. But maybe one of the reasons that he’s been able to get away with posting in a manner that I think can be unfair and counter-productive is that he often happens to be right on the important stuff, and willing to speak out about serious problems within psychology when so many others prefer to stay quiet. If there were an army of psychological researchers willing to dive into the fight and tackle bad research like PACE in a forceful but polite manner, then we’d be in a better position. It doesn’t seem that there is.
PS: If there is anyone who feels that they could defend PACE as a remotely respectable piece of work, or defend the PACE researcher’s responses to criticism, then I would be happy to debate those matters (without swearing) here. I’ve not explained my criticisms of PACE as it now seems sufficiently widely recognised that PACE is an example of junk-science.
Thanks for posting, I really appreciate your thoughts and perspective on this. We often write in grant proposals that we need money because our work is of great clinical significance, but there really aren’t enough connections between clinical reseachers and patients, and I’m proud to know a few fantastic colleagues who aim to bridge that gap more. In the lab I am a postdoc in, we have a few papers in which patients are actually on the paper itself as authors because they provided crucial data, and have also been speaking at conferences (I was not involved in these particular projects, so all credit goes to other people here).
And I understand this might seem a bit of a weird debate for patients who actually suffered harm from scientific malpractice. And I’m very sorry to hear that you are one of these people, that is absolutely horrible. And while I know next to nothing about PACE, from what I gather Dr Coyne has been a very important person in standing up for the rights of patients, and he deserves all the praise and respect in the world for that.
But my main point really is that it does not matter what the content of the work you are doing is — you shouldn’t be a dick to other people. In fact, the more important the work you do, the more relevant it is you at least try to stay a little bit calm, because calling people names will never ever contribute to you reaching your goals, it will always be an obstacle. I remember being a student representative for quite some time during University, and I got upset and angry about some very unfair things happening, regularly. And I’m sure I said some things I shouldn’t have, in committees and hearings. But overall, speaking for a large group of people, being a representative for other students is a responsibility, and if I had thrown a tantrum in every committee hearing, calling professors rude pricks and that they should fuck off, I’m 100% sure that wouldn’t have served the students’ goals because I would have lost credibility and therefore influence.
You wrote: “Maybe it indicates that, as a community, you are a bit on the shitty side of things? Maybe a tiny bit of swearing might sometimes justified?”
Haha, maybe! Putting the foot down, as they say, screaming Jesus Motherf***ing Christ, that sort of thing. But telling a woman she’s being a bitch in a scientific discourse on Twitter? I just don’ think that should be a thing, ever.
I agree with a lot of what you write, and certainly think that Coyne would be more effective in fighting against bad science if he was also more restrained on social media. Personally, the ‘tone’ aspect doesn’t bother me in the way it can some, although I recognise that it can be counter-productive; what I think is more of a problem is that his insults can be inaccurate, seemingly shot-off without having first bothered to check that he’s got his facts right. People’s tweets can be seen by so many, and leave behind a record, which means that the mentality of just chucking out insults like after an evening of too much drink is not appropriate.
To me though, it seems that a far more important issue limiting the open exchange of ideas and arguments is the polite and gentle pressures being applied by powerful figures behind the scenes (write a critical blog post on PACE if you want to see what I mean). If Coyne shoots off some unfounded insult, accusing someone of being a troll just for disagreeing with him, then while it’s all out in the open everyone can see it for what it is. I think that this is the sort of pressure that people need to able to shrug off, as when it comes to taking a stand on important issues there will be far more meaningful pressure to stay quiet than that. (Is this me being a dick? Am I not appreciating the difficult situation people are placed under? Or is it just that I have seen far more extreme forms of academic pressure around PACE?)
“But my main point really is that it does not matter what the content of the work you are doing is — you shouldn’t be a dick to other people.”
That’s easy to say, but it’s often hard to know who is being a dick. When it comes to CFS, the PACE trial, and related issues, who is being a dick? How far out does the responsibility for the problems here spread? Whose behaviour is deserving of censure? The journal editors who have refused to publish letters detailing clear factual errors? The journalists who have promoted misleading claims without fact-checking? The researchers who have trusted what they were told at conferences without first checking the evidence? Is simple inaction worthy of criticism? For those who have been aware of the PACE scandal rumbling on for years, and have left it to others to take on the task of examining all the details, is that bad? Would it ever be? What if things continued as they are for another five years, with the PACE researchers and key authority figures failing to defend this work, but refusing to acknowledge the problems with it either. How much longer would patients need to go on fighting to show the harm being done to them by misleading research from the psychological community before there was a real responsibility for others in the psychological community to take action? It’s already been about thirty years.
Does the fact that Coyne did decide to take action, when many others would not, mean that in spite of his tweeting, overall he is less of a dick than most of those within the psychological research community? (I don’t mean to sound as if I am attempting to excuse the way he can misuse social media, but I am interested in exploring how the different actions of psychological researchers are morally assessed by the psychological research community.)
I might be able to manage a non-PACE example. Most of us recognise that we have some responsibility to try to assist those who are less fortunate than ourselves, but how much? When someone decides that they want to use their money to fly across the world and enjoy a holiday, even though they know that others struggle to afford to feed themselves, are they being a dick? If someone chooses to forgo such material pleasures, donating a large percentage of their income to charity, but is a surly and aggressive grump to those around them who they come to see as selfish and immoral, does that make them more or less of a dick?
I worry that things related to tone, aggressive tweets, etc, can get more attention than they warrant as they are ‘easy’ problems to criticise, while the more important problems within psychological research take more time and effort to understand and attempt to address (and also tend to cause problems for those outside of the psychological research community rather than within). It would it be great if everyone’s every social media post was fair and measured, but to me it doesn’t seem that aggressive and unreasonable tweets are an important source of abuses of power within the psychological research community.
I fear I’ve accidentally written a defence on Coyne, when I personally find a lot of his tweets annoying.
Guy seems to have a habit of confusing people he’s name-called! On the “fuck your haughty advice” thread you’ve screenshotted (which seems to be gone now, looks like he’s closed his account or something?) further down he yelled at me for something I hadn’t done, too. A couple years ago he called me a baby and then sent me a Facebook friend request.