Bad Faith Criticism of Science

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.")

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A fine article: thank you.

The problem also works in the criminal justice systems of some countries, such as the USA and Italy to name two. People accused of crimes get persecuted and crucified by people who completely lack the facts, and it sways prosecutors, judges, juries...

A fine example was and still is the Amanda Knox trials. The "evidence" against her does not exist, yet there are web sites that claim to "prove" she committed an ugly murder. Douglas Preston called this Internet behavior "Trial By Fury: Internet Savagery and the Amanda Knox Case." I consider it to be a form of mob violence.

A society that attacks its scientists is a doomed society.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

This problem occurs because of how science research is funded.

It is funded (or not funded) based on the personal biases of those at the top of the science funding social hierarchy. Those at the top cannot know the details of the science of those working on the cutting edge "at the bottom". They have to make decisions about science funding based on what they do know; which is how much "hype" the "research proposer" has generated. This is why publishing in high hype journals (Science, Nature, etc) is make-or-break for a career. It doesn't matter if the results are wrong (the arsenic paper, or XMRV).

By daedalus2u (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

This is why publishing in high hype journals (Science, Nature, etc) is make-or-break for a career.

Well, let's see. I am a life-long brown-nosed ass kisser, so I am qualified to offer a valued, well-reasoned opinion which is the one and only correct one.

The sad truth is that society loves science but members of society don't want to pay for it. No where is this best demonstrated than in the USA there was once popular support for building a large hadron collider / particle accelerator in the country, as long as it would not cost anything. CERN built one elsewhere, for about E3,100,000,000 (about US$1,470,560,000). According to The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's estimate on the monetary cost of invading Iraq ("about six trillion"), the USA could have built over 4,000 of them. Millions of Americans, when polled, will claim they think the invasion was a great idea. Damn few would think spending six trillion dollars on a LHC was a good thing.

So we come back to "the popular science press," the sexy _Nature_ and its similar cousins and siblings. The best way to get more funding for one's personal science projects is to appeal to the people forking over the money: this is not an "ought:" it is an "is." It means a great deal of ass kissing and several "hand jobs" in all the right places to get that money, and the best way to get in line to kiss those asses and pull down those zippers is in sexy science journals.

I live in a culture where funding for Creationism "museums" is limitless (and for some, such as "ARK Encounters," subsided by tax-payers), and funding for science is scarce. This sucks limes, but that is the way it is.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

In reply to by daedalus2u (not verified)

"... pull down those zippers...." Gods, I'm hilarious!

By Desertphile (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

And so, after writing this, you then post a petition to get a scientist fired?

No irony there then...

First, as I have expressed, i have mixed feeling about calling for firing people. (And i don't take it very seriously btw.) But more importantly, please do read the text you are comparing. On one hand we have attacks on science, and attacks on scientists for the science they do. that is wrong. On the other hand we have a scientist clearly violating ethics, entirely aside from his rather bad science. That you don't see that easily discerned distinction suggests that you only skimmed the posts. Or only read the titles, perhaps.

I'm with you Desertphile, I often think of the trillions spent on Iraq and imagine the amazing benefits that would have ensued had that money been spent on something (or many things) worthwhile.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

I often think of the trillions spent on Iraq and imagine the amazing benefits that would have ensued had that money been spent on something (or many things) worthwhile.

Remember the "peace dividend" that Reagan-Bush1 promised us? What ever happened to that?

By Desertphile (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

In reply to by Craig Thomas (not verified)

It's worse than that: After spending trillions *destroying* things, there's the need to spend trillions more to *rebuild* in the wake of the rubble.

The 100's of thousands of lives that were lost can never be restored. Think of what humanity has lost because of this "family war"...

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

The 1% got the dividend. The rest of us got the shaft. Of course!

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

Yup, read them both. You really don't see the issue with talking about attacking individuals in this article, and attacking an individual scientist in your petition promotion?

Ah=gain, my irony metre is flashing and making quite loud noises.

I do see what you are saying, Andy. You are still missing the point. You are missing two points. One is about what I think of it all (and no I won't explain it again, you'll just never know that I suppose) The other is that the Serengeti strategy is about going after mainstream consensus science by attacking key individuals. Soon is not a key individual in any arena, and he is not practicing mainstream science. He is a kook. In this case he is a kook who has left himself open to criticism for his ethics. This is about criticizing his ethics. It is appropriate to do that.

Personally, as I've said, I don' think this is something to get fired over. Having said that, it is also true that petitions are not dictum. The authorities in charge, however, will be able to use it if so moved, so maybe that is a good thing. If I had written the petition I would have called for "investigating" rather than whatever word they used (they did not say "fire" but they said something like that).

Andy, you are trying to make a false equivalence here. And, frankly, the petition is the kind of action that asks for that inadvertently.

This attack on consensus science, with strong evidence, using the Serengeti Strategy (great simily) occurs in the most unexpected places. It occurs when the implications of the science are unwelcome by a group sophisticated enough to attempt to use the normal mechanisms of science and academia to its own, unethical end. We usually think of this coming from monied or traditionally privileged interests. But it can and does come from the tranditionally unempowered, if they feel what power and previlege they do have is threatened by the science and its implications, should they have been lying to obtain that previlege, howeer meager. This is what happened ten years ago in the transgender community, when a university professor wrote a book aimed at the general reader, explaining the growing evidence for a two type taxonomy for male-to-female transsexuals, which had been known and largely accepted in the sexology community for decades. That professor was singled out for the Serengeti attack by a small group of very sophisticated "activists" as a way of intimidating both the scientific community, and other transfolk, into silence, lest the public learn of the implications of this well replicated science. Its a chilling tale. And one that every scientist and academic should know: https://sillyolme.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/what-the-next-wave-of-transg…

By Kay Brown (not verified) on 02 Feb 2015 #permalink

This attack on consensus science....

Okay, I will ask. What is "consensus science?"

By Desertphile (not verified) on 03 Feb 2015 #permalink

In reply to by Kay Brown (not verified)

The consensus. Of science. So the term is like "junk science" or "real science".