I’ve recently written about the Serengeti Strategy, a coin termed by climate scientist Michael Mann to describe the anti-science strategy of personal attacks against individual scientists in an attempt to discredit valid scientific research one might find inconvenient. Science Careers (from Science Magazine) has a new item called “Science under the microscope” looking at bad faith criticism of science and scientist. Some of this comes from within science itself, where the term “torpedo” is sometimes used. Rival scientists do take shots at each other in the peer review or grant review process.
Whether it’s because they are overworked, lack training, vested in a particular theory or methodology, or just having a bad day, sometimes scientists write what Cornell University psychologist Robert Sternberg calls “savage reviews.” “A savage review is one that is either personalized—in other words, the criticisms are of the persons rather than of the works—or the criticisms are of the works but the language is excessive … for the gravity of the sins…”
Sometimes criticism from within science plays out outside the usual channels. Sometimes this criticism is quite valid, such as the widespread dislike of a paper on bacteria that seemed to be evolving in an American salt lake a few years ago. Remember that? The paper seemed to make claims about the significance of their findings that went beyond the results they reported, and the authors backed up those claims with a promise that they would be publishing a followup paper with the necessary proof. Never do that. A published scientific paper can include some speculation or suggestion of further findings, but highlighted findings, which in this case were highlighted in a major press event set up by NASA, should have been either not mentioned or backed up, perhaps in a later publication. In that case, the part of the scientific community that inhabits the science biosphere had a feeding frenzy. The criticisms being made in blogs were usually valid, but the tone was in some quarters way overdone. For my part, I took the opportunity of the paper coming out to write about a related topic, and I actually received some of the vitriol myself simply because I did not bother to address the original paper’s flaws. (I had decided not to because experts in the field had it covered!) The point is, sometimes the flak becomes so dense that the flack itself becomes the message. The Science Careers piece talks about a case of overlap between the scientific literature and the blogosphere that was less vitriolic but just as complex:
…cognitive psychologist Axel Cleeremans … attempted to replicate a classic study by John Bargh of Yale University, in which some participants were primed, without realizing it, with concepts associated with old age. Bargh’s study found that they walked more slowly from the exam room than subjects who had not been so primed. Cleeremans’s group found that they could not replicate the result …
The failed replication attempt…was picked up by science journalist Ed Yong at his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog and attracted a lot of attention. Bargh responded with a post on his own blog, at Psychology Today, where he spelled out the errors that he believed the Cleeremans group made. The post, titled “Nothing in their Heads,” used a tone Bargh later told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he now regrets; it has since been taken down. Yong described the post, in a subsequent blog post of his own, as “a mixture of critiques of the science within the paper, and personal attacks a…” Harsh words flew in Bargh’s direction, too, as Bargh’s critics accused him of ad hominem attacks and attacked him in turn, often via anonymous comments.
More recently, a reconstruction of a large and sexy dinosaur was heavily criticized in the blogosphere by individuals who probably knew their dinosaurs, but who had not seen the original fossils or casts. I’m pretty sure the criticisms were weak, and the language was strong, and no dinosaurs (or hypotheses) were harmed in the process. But it was yet another example of the bleed between traditional modalities of communication and newer on line and social networking based modalities, going at least a little bad.
The Science Careers piece also talks about attacks on science, and scientists, from outside the population of scientists and deeply interested and informed parties, such as attacks on climate scientists by those who insist on denying the reality of anthropogenic global warming. My piece on the Serengeti Strategy, which was a commentary on Michael Mann’s paper on that topic, covers that area. See also these posts on the Recursive Fury maneno.
Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, has experienced many attacks since his “hockey stick” curve was published in the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mann has since become an outspoken defender of climate science…and been the victim of many vilifying media reports, campaigns aimed at discrediting him, the misuse of open-records laws, e-mail hacking (in the so-called “Climategate”), and threats to his and his family’s safety.
Such attacks can be “very stressful, it can take a lot of a scientist’s time. … Unfortunately if their institution doesn’t support them, it’s potentially very expensive” in legal costs, says Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. It can detract from your ability to do research, Kurtz adds. There also is a danger that it will derail your career, especially for young scientists who don’t have the security of tenure, Mann writes in an e-mail. “[T]here is always a fear that your colleagues and bosses (chairs, deans, provosts, presidents) will believe the scurrilous accusations made against you.”
Some of this is not so much about science (or anti science) but just plain harassment. Or, a combination of both, especially if the scientist under attack is a woman. It seems that one of the main roles of the blogosphere is to give misogynists their own private shooting gallery.
“For the longest time, the only people reacting to academic research were either academics or people who were very interested in a particular field,” says Whitney Phillips, a media studies scholar at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. But “Things are … so visible now that anybody … can say something on a blog and then suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of lots of weird commentary.”
There are lots of different kinds of nasty behaviors online, and how they are perceived largely depends on the receiver, Phillips says. Online nastiness can go all the way from potentially offensive general comments to personal attacks directed at you. Sometimes it can even “reac[h] the legal criteria for harassment, so someone is not just saying rude things to you but is … potentially even threatening you or trying to wiggle their way into your life,” Phillips says.
Women and minorities are disproportionately exposed to online antagonism and may also be more sensitized because they already confront it in real life, Phillips says…
Phillips suggests limiting the power of “Internet trolls”…by deleting anything they (the trolls) post on your blog, banning them from your site, and using word filters. Try not to get sucked in, as what they want most is a response and an audience, she says….
One of my favorite quotes by me (if I may be allowed) is, “It is important to be hated by the right people.” This is obvious. If Ghandi hates you and Hitler loves you, you are probably doing something wrong. When sadistic internet trolls and anti-science activists go after you, you are a victim but you are also a symbol of something good. Truly, a mixed bag, but worth keeping in mind. The Science Career piece also makes this point. And other points. Go read it.
(I’m assuming it is not behind a firewall but I’m not sure. If you find it so let me know and I’ll change that last sentence to “Go don’t read it.”)