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Recent events have gotten a lot of people concerned about personal attacks, name calling, and reputational smears. No, we’re not talking about the presidential election. Sadly, it is becoming almost as easy to find examples of bullying and defamation in scientific and engineering research as in politics. This uncivil behavior ultimately cheapens scientific ideas.
So points out Dr. Tee Guidotti, president of the scientific research society Sigma Xi and a physician/consultant in occupational and environmental medicine. “Scientists are human beings and frequently aren’t nice to each other,” he says. “Rather than dealing with disagreements by examining data, scientists are almost as likely as the general public to question the motives of their antagonists.”
It isn’t just that bad-mouthing bums people out. It can thwart or delay progress in scientific and engineering endeavors. Perhaps the classic illustration of the trend involves the bile spewed on both sides of the climate change debate, though this might be a worst-case example. “To be clear, I live in a ‘bad neighborhood,’ working on occupational and environmental health, where such tactics are more common than elsewhere in science/STEM,” says Guidotti.
On a more granular level, consider this situation from my own past: I once had a drinking buddy who discovered a mistake while making a final review of an engineering specification he’d help prepare. Correcting it saved his client about $30,000. Instead of hearing something like, “nice catch” when he brought the situation to light, his client questioned his intelligence for making the initial mistake. “If I ever find another glitch like that, I’ll just shut up and let them pay the money,” he fumed.
Those of us with technical backgrounds would like to think we’re above the kind of name calling my friend received. But it is surprising how often ordinary interactions degenerate into nasty behavior.
“Particularly in hot-button issues like climate change, there can be a straight-to-the-jugular kind of one-upmanship or an effort to assert alpha dominance,” says Guidotti. “And a lot of research is characterized by fine differences in how to interpret hard data. The situation can escalate because you have reached the limits of what data can tell you, and you are trying to interpret meaning. The meaning is the sticking point. What is meaningful to one person who states an opinion may violate the values or appear to contradict those of their critics. We end up using interpretations of data as surrogates for arguments that really have more to do with now we feel than with what the data says.”
You might wonder how to make interactions more civil. Civility among politicians could be a lost cause, but Guidotti thinks science and engineering students need schooling in this area. “The only way to deal with incivility is to call it out. When students see role models fighting at meetings or deprecating one another or being just plain rude, they model that behavior,” he says. “It ends up debasing the scientific enterprise because all-important discussions about weighing arguments become biased and aren’t conducted fairly. And that is harmful to good science and engineering because both are, at their core, social processes.”
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