So as you all probably know by now, over the weekend there was this piece published in the Boston Globe, once again decrying the apparently poor tone of people calling for psychological science to clean up its act. Like everyone else, I’m going to suggest reading James Heather
as a companion piece first.
I’m also going to take this chance to finish a thought I started thinking back when Roger Giner-Sorolla published his piece on Scientific Criticism. Eiko-Fried’s post on the tone-police police is also relevant, as is Simine Vazire’s article in Slate, and Alison Ledgerwood’s in the APS Observer.
Because yes, this debate has been around for a while. How much – or how vigorously – are we “allowed” to criticize other people’s work on social media? How sensitive should we be when others criticise our own research? How fair are conclusions like “In the past, Researcher X has used shoddy methods and their results haven’t replicated; now they’ve published a new paper and I’m not even going to bother”? These are important questions, and I’ve written about a couple of aspects of these debates before.
But this time, it was a different aspect that struck me: The idea of separating the Person from the Work (or the Scientist from the Science, if you want to be confusing).
This separation is basically obvious to everyone (though where we draw the line is debated), and comes up a lot in the tone discussions. However, most of the discussion has – I think? – been about the negatives. If you’re critical of someone’s work, you still shouldn’t make inferences about their intentions. If your work receives a harsh review, that doesn’t mean you are a terrible person.
But… if I shouldn’t take criticism too personally, how should I take praise? If I should remember the role of luck when my paper gets rejected, what should I think about my hard work and degree of talent when it gets accepted?
I’m sure I’m not the first to make this comment, but I think it’s worth remembering. Maybe one of the reasons it’s so hard to separate the science from the scientist is because we implicitly know there’s a downside to perfect detachment.