Monday, July 10, 2006

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Professional courtesy?

Something has recently been on my mind.

We scientists are a temperamental lot, on the whole. We have respect for each other, rivalry with each other, disdain, sometimes, for each other, in varying combinations. We've never been particularly shy about expressing ourselves in those regards, particularly in the areas of rivalry and disdain, and there are many stories of nasty things that famous scientists have said about each other.

In the past, before the ubiquity of the Internet, before blogs, we usually did such things over drinks or dinner at conferences. "Say," we might have said, "Did you hear about that useless garbage McSmithovich is working on? She'll never get anywhere with her crazy ideas and that worthless batch of post-docs she's working with!" And then word might have gotten around, especially if we had some pointedly witty comment that caused a chuckle and bore repeating.

Otherwise, we oversaw each other's work though peer review, and work that was not respected would simply not pass peer review and wouldn't be published. Or sometimes, when it was published, a detractor would get to write an editorial rebuttal in the journal, or we'd see debate about the work at a subsequent conference.

We're now in a different age. The peer review and such are still there, but the snide comments and outright attacks against work in progress are no longer limited to casual discussions with a pinot noir in hand. Blogs, in particular, have made it easy for us to blast each other, quite vehemently and quite publicly, and word now gets around in minutes or hours, not weeks or months. Ad hominem attacks, the effects of which used to be mitigated by their propagation time, are now read by the known world on the very day — and may have hundreds of replies, rejoinders, and recriminations by sundown.

What has been on my mind is whether this is a good thing.

Rivalries and unabashed disdain aside, we used to have a level of professional courtesy that seems now to be largely lost; yes, it still exists, but it's spectral, ethereal, ephemeral. It's just too easy to attack and counterattack, and we're losing that "my esteemed colleague" sort of thing.

To be sure, we should look at each other's work critically; it's a foundation stone of science. When McSmithovich publishes her work, her colleagues have a scientific responsibility to review it, to check the results, to point out the flaws. That should be done carefully, clearly, and courteously. Name-calling is of no value. Blanket statements ("This work is worthless!") are of no value. Tedious repetition of the same disagreements are of no value.

In part, where we're going as scientists reflects where society as a whole seems to be going. "News" programs on television, which used to be exemplars of decorum and reasoned discussion, are now often shouting matches, full of empty invective, name-calling, demands for someone to "shut up", and attempts to shut down dissenting opinions simply by being louder than they. So maybe it's just that we're no different.

But we should be. We have a "scientific method", and we rely on the scrutiny and the respect of our colleagues. I'd like to see us get back to the "my esteemed colleague" days. With the aid of the Internet we can blast each other more quickly and more efficiently than ever before. That doesn't mean we should.

2 comments:

Ross Patterson said...

I've been wondering about the same thing lately. But I've been wondering from the other direction: is the rise of disintermediated discussion and "publication" leading Science back to its roots? Is it a return to the days of Newton, Leibniz, van Leeuwenhoek, The Royal Society, et al? Are we heading towards a day when bad science and good again fight it out in public rather than having only the respected viewpoints see the light of day?

scouter573 said...

The flip side of this point is that peer review used to be a gateway to publication and dissemination. Today, anyone with a free blog can flog the dimmest, most transparent fallacy as "research" and get some number of people to support them. By the way, I'm looking for funding for my table-top fusion reactor built from potato chip cans and a flashlight from a design originally built by ancient Aztecs.... Send checks or cash.