I’ve never been the victim of bullying, either in science or social media. I have, in fact, been called a bully (and worse) for some of the things I’ve written on this blog (Responses from both Davids (I’m Goliath)). But I know I’m among the privileged (white, cisgender, middle-aged heterosexual male) few who are least likely to experience bullying. So when Ed Yong tweeted his approval of a Slate article by Simine Vazire, “Criticizing a Scientist’s Work Isn’t Bullying. It’s Science,” I checked it out.
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) October 24, 2017
The backlash Yong received on Twitter would lead one to believe that the actual article was much more extreme than it really was:
The story of Amy Cuddy, as told in a recent New York Times Magazine story, illustrates why self-correction is so rare in science. In painting a moving portrait of Cuddy’s life over the past few years, it conflates Cuddy’s experience as the target of scientific criticism with her experience as the target of something much more vicious and universal: actual bullying.
Vazire argues that criticizing the content of a scientist’s work is not equivalent to a personal attack on the scientist:
Cuddy’s story is an important story to tell: It is a story of a woman living in a misogynistic society, having to put up with internet bullies who I have no doubt have cruelly and unreasonably criticized her life and career. But it is also a story of a woman experiencing completely appropriate scientific criticism of a finding she published. Conflating those issues, and the people delivering the “attacks,” does a disservice to the fight for gender equality, and it does a disservice to science.
From the comments, you would think Vazire hadn’t acknowledged the misogyny that pervades both academia and social media. Here’s (part of) what she actually said:
We live in a world where women who rise to the top almost invariably must endure systematic harassment and threats of assault along the way. Being a public figure demands heroic levels of bravery from them, particularly given that women are still underrepresented in positions of leadership.
The actual article is thoughtful and balanced, making a crucial distinction between legitimate criticism motivated by a desire to get the science right and personal attacks motivated by a desire to belittle and intimidate.
It cannot be controversial for one scientist to say to another, “I think you’re wrong,” or, “Show me your evidence.” Indeed, the motto of the Royal Society of Science is nullius in verba, which means “take no one’s word.” There should be no sacred findings in science.
I couldn’t agree more (though I think she means the Royal Society of London). Of course, I’m biased to agree; I sometimes use this blog to criticize scientific and philosophical papers. I do, however, try to keep the focus on the results, not the people. Which is exactly what the authors of the blog post in question did. There is not the slightest hint of a personal attack in that post; in fact, the post doesn’t mention Amy Cuddy and colleagues by name at all, only calling them “the authors.” It’s all about the data.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for scientific criticism to cross the line into bullying, or even that I know where the dividing line is located (if in fact there is a sharp dividing line). Power dynamics matter, tone matters, and even strictly scientific arguments get heated. There’s also no doubt that Amy Cuddy has been subjected to some vile attacks, as the Slate article points out. But if you assume from the title that the Slate article is dismissive of online bullying, I suggest you take Ed Yong’s advice:
Sing like no one is listening.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.
Dance like nobody’s watching.
Read the fucking article.
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) October 5, 2016