it’s halftime in america. or at least it’s halftime in game five of the clippers-rockets series. although i had planned to root for the clippers, mostly because they managed to eliminate the spurs and the holder of the best nickname ever,** i am finding it hard to resist james harden’s mohawk/beard combo. clippers or rockets? so hard to choose.
this is a common problem for me. i like to have it both ways. i am a personality psychologist and a social psychologist. i’m an atheist who is baptized and had my first communion, but if anyone in iran asks, i’m muslim. i think eating meat is mostly wrong but i just ate a bbq cheeseburger with pepperjack cheese. i am vast. i contain multitudes. (and now also a bbq cheeseburger).
so i’m here to plead for two things that might, on the face of it, seem contradictory: more civility and more criticism.
more and more of our scientific dialogue is happening in informal settings such as blogs and social media. this has many upsides. but as eli finkel pointed out on the facebook ISCON page, it's important to think about the norms for these interactions.
in our formal outlets (i.e., journals), i think our field is unique in its extremely civil tone, even in critiques, failures to replicate, etc., and also in the tone of our reviews. from what i gather from people in other fields, we are a really respectful bunch. i like that about us.
the informal outlets are more of a mixed bag. i see a lot of very dispassionate, sober analysis. but i also see some snarkiness, especially on twitter. my twitter activity has mostly dwindled to werner twertzog retweets because the intellectual discussions feel a bit like a dodgeball drill. maybe that’s fine – we all need a place to let off steam. but if we want social media to be a place for serious intellectual discussion, we have to treat each other as competent and honest actors. if we don’t have that foundation, why bother debating?
i hesitate to even bring up the civility issue, because i worry that it is my own anxiety that makes me scared of participating in these more heated discussions. but i am using my expert interpersonal perception skills to infer a pattern in who does and does not participate,*** and i don’t think i’m alone. if we want to draw more people into the conversation, civility is key.
by civility, i don't mean agreement. the best intellectual debates are between people who vehemently disagree, but have great respect for each other. we need to separate politeness from agreement. in some domains of life it might be impolite for me not to believe you, but in science skepticism is vital - it is not a sign of disrespect. we need to stop being so sensitive about critiquing each other’s research. it should not take guts to question a phenomenon, to say you think a theory or hypothesis is wrong, to critique the methods or conclusions drawn by your colleagues. disagreement should be commonplace. we all read things we don’t believe. i sometimes read six impossible things before breakfast.****
and yet i find myself biting my tongue because of how criticism is perceived in our field. saying you don’t believe a finding, or a theory, is often seen as rude. that needs to change. we need to be able to debate, disagree, critique, and then go to happy hour like civilized people. i might be totally fooling myself, but if you wanted to buy me a beer and trash one of my papers, i think i would be ok with that.******
we need to draw a sharp distinction between scientific criticism and the more personal kind. i think we all know where that line is, because we observe it very well in professional contexts. we know how to disagree without disrespecting. it's practically our job description.
we also know that being skeptical is not impolite - it is the heart and soul of the scientific process. we teach it to our students and we practice it all the time. but for some reason once a paper is in print we act like it's blasphemy to be critical of it. let's get over that. no finding should be sacred.
oh my god the clippers are dying. i hope big baby doesn’t start crying.
* title shamelessly lifted from maile meloy’s excellent short story collection. which i read all of. and i don’t even like short stories. i like my stories long.
** what’s a girl gotta do to get called the big fundamental? (also, tim duncan has a social psychology publication with mark leary. true fact.) (also, i’m partial to doc rivers, but i do think the whole father-son combo is kind of weird.)
*** i'm a professional. don't try this at home.
**** when you live on the west coast, there is a lot of stuff to catch up on when you wake up in the morning. like the psych science table of contents.*****
***** sorry psych science. you don’t deserve that, not any more than many other journals. plus you've done a lot of good things. please don’t reject the manuscript that we just submitted to your very fine journal.
****** especially if it’s a west coast IPA.