Under inspection

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Scientists under the microscope

Science and scientists are under constant scrutiny. Most of that scrutiny is healthy. It’s good when scientists challenge each other and discuss issues as they work together—sometimes taking opposite sides—to disentangle the true and enduring from the fleeting and flawed. Governments must guarantee that resources are used wisely, experiments are done ethically, and the benefits of research are transferred to society. The public has a right to question how science may impact their lives and whether scientists can be trusted. Accepting fair criticism, then, is an essential professional duty.

But not all criticism is fair or made in good faith. Even scientists sometimes cross the line: Peer reviews turn vitriolic, questions to speakers turn condescending, and scientific disputes turn personal. Scientists and their work may attract unwanted public attention, too, and gratuitous online nastiness. In recent years, an increasing number of scientists in politically and ideologically sensitive fields have become targets of hate e-mails, death threats, campaigns aimed at discrediting them and their entire field, and legal battles.

[F]ight back when necessary to defend your science against bad faith attacks, but the best defense here is a good offense.

—Michael Mann

Some scientists may be surprised when this happens and find such experiences deeply unsettling. While it’s important not to spend too much time or effort anticipating such events, a bit of preparation can be useful. When they find themselves on display in an unfair and unflattering way, scientists should take a deep breath, calm down, sort scientific arguments from personal attacks, and calculate an appropriate response—or just let it go.

Savage peer reviews

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,” Sternberg explains; he estimates that he has received a dozen savage reviews during his career.

It’s easy to get upset, but you shouldn’t, Sternberg says. “One of the things you need to do as you become more advanced in the field is just to shrug these things off and not let them bother you.” Try not to take offense. “Just ignore the personal part in the language. Just see if there is anything in the review that you can use to improve your work.”

Robert Sternberg

Robert Sternberg

Courtesy of Robert Sternberg

Public rows about science

Things get trickier when intense criticisms are made publicly. “You’re best off, when that happens, just giving a straight answer, and the hell with it,” Sternberg says. When he was interviewing for his first university job, “someone asked what I thought was a sort of stupid and condescending question in a job talk I gave, and being 24 years old and naive, I gave a snappy answer,” he says. “I later just found out that the guy was the chair of the search committee, so that was kind of the end of that job.”

A few years ago, cognitive psychologist Axel Cleeremans of the Université Libre de Bruxelles 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 unless the experimenters were told to expect a slower walking pace.

The failed replication attempt, which was published in PLOS One in 2012, 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 against the researchers, PLOS ONE, the journal that published it, and me, who covered it.” 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.

Axel Cleeremans

Axel Cleeremans

Courtesy of Axel Cleeremans

“I was hurt by the things that were said, not just in the article, but in Ed Yong's coverage of it,” Bargh told The Chronicle. He still feels “frustration and sadness at how he's been treated,” The Chronicle reports; some scientists in the article describe him as “a victim of scientific bullying” and the controversy over priming as “a referendum on one man.” Attempts by Science Careers to contact him were unsuccessful.

There have always been scientific controversies of course, and they have not always been civil. What has changed is how visible they are. Such disputes once led to intense private correspondences, shouting matches at academic meetings, or series of letters to journals with several months’ lag time between. Today, such disputes can be viewed in all their glory, instantly, by anyone with an interest. They leave a record that can stay online forever or until someone decides to take it down.

Being publicly challenged can be difficult, says Cleeremans, who found Bargh’s comments “a little bit insulting” and felt he had to respond to intense scrutiny to his work. As Cleeremans sees it, the most important thing is to dissociate criticism of the science from personal attacks on the scientist. Scientific criticism suggests “that you are onto something … definitely important enough that people feel that they should … position themselves in terms of agreeing or disagreeing with what you’ve found, so it is already a mark of recognition.” Should your study fail to replicate, you can replace it with a new hypothesis, note another interesting effect, or correct the study, he adds. “That’s the process of science.”

When responding to criticism, it’s also important to weigh your words. “When it’s all taking place in public like that, it’s difficult because of course what you say is instantly retweeted … so you have to exert a degree of restraint and care when you speak.”

Scientists often take it personally, but they shouldn’t, Cleeremans says. “Anybody can genuinely make an error or genuinely interpret results in a certain way but be proven wrong later on, that doesn’t change anything to who you are as a person.” Should you be on the receiving end of personal attacks, “my advice would be to, in general, sort of ignore it [because] everybody understands that such attacks are not scientific arguments in any sense.”

Whitney Phillips

Whitney Phillips

Courtesy of Whitney Phillips

Online harassment

“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. At its worst, online harassment can affect your ability to work, and it can require a great deal of emotional fortitude to continue, she adds. “The real worry is that you would have … people from historically underrepresented groups in the sciences … deciding that they want to leave the field …  [at a time when] there needs to be more diversity in the sciences.”

Phillips suggests limiting the power of “Internet trolls”—and encouraging meaningful conversation with the rest of the public—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. Also, seek support from your peers. “The problem with online harassment is that it makes you feel isolated, and it can sometimes make you question your sanity that you are reacting really strongly to these different comments.” Talking to people will help you realize you are not the only one and have done nothing wrong, Phillips explains. 

In the firing line

Michael Halpern

Michael Halpern

Credit: Michael Halpern/Union of Concerned Scientists

Ideologically or politically sensitive fields like climate change, environmental protection, genetically modified organisms, animal research—even evolution—are more likely to attract public attacks intended to intimidate, distract, and harm the reputation of individual scientists and, often, their entire field. While such ideology-driven critics have long existed (especially in the United States) their fervor and the weapons at their disposal have increased in the recent years, says Michael Halpern, who is program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C.

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—he summarizes his experiences here—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.”

Lauren Kurtz

Lauren Kurtz

Credit: Lauren Kurtz/Climate Science Legal Defense Fund

Scientists under such scrutiny should “first and foremost, just do good work,” Kurtz says. “A good scientist … will always prevail in the end.” Also, when entering the debate and communicating your research to the public, “you do need to be conscientious about what you’re saying and making sure that you’re communicating in an effective way.”


Hopefully, most scientists will never be seriously impacted by such unwelcome exposure, but everyone should prepare by becoming aware of the risks and giving a bit of thought as to how they should respond, Halpern says. UCS has issued a booklet detailing what to do (and what not to do) in a broad range of situations. Concerned scientists might also want to talk to their universities and departments to see how much (and what kind of) institutional support they could count on.

Over the past few years, the American Geophysical Union has offered legal advice at annual meetings. The American Chemical Society has reported extensively on attacks against scientists in Chemical and Engineering News. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund provides legal support to scientists so they can focus on their research. The fund and UCS put researchers in touch so they may provide each other with emotional support and practical advice.

One mistake scientists commonly make is to “look to any sort of criticism as they would in a scientific context and try to answer every single question that comes their way, when sometimes those kinds of questions are just meant to distract or take time or create material that can be taken out of context later,” Halpern says. And “sometimes, it’s better not to engage the attacker directly.” A safer place for scientists to respond is their own website, where they can explain what their research is about and provide some context while staying in control of the conversation, Halpern says. Resist the tendency to attack back or say things in frustration or anger, he adds.

Scientists should also recognize that there is a limit to what they can achieve, says Marcel Kuntz, a research director and fundamental plant biologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in the Laboratory of Plant and Cell Physiology in Grenoble, France. Kuntz entered the public debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in France after observing what he calls a growing tendency by French public authorities to distort scientific findings for political ends and after reading an alarmist article in his local newspaper, he says. At first, he tried to take part in adversarial debates. But he gave that up, realizing that “I won’t be able to express what I want to express as a scientist, I am obliged to refute lies with political ends during the whole debate, and hence I enter a game where I myself become a political militant,” he says.

Marcel Kuntz

Marcel Kuntz

Courtesy of Marcel Kuntz

Now Kuntz, who has added writing journal articles reviewing the state of GMO research to his portfolio of academic activities, talks to the press and runs a blog on the issue—which has, of course, attracted offensive commentaries. His aim is to use his scientific knowledge and rhetorical skill to explain what is known, what is not known, and what political interests are at play—and then let the public decide. Scientists should communicate, “but without absolutely wanting to impose their views,” Kuntz says. They should also be aware that combining academic activities in such diverse fields dilutes your work, which can be counterproductive for your career, especially for young researchers who are still in the race for permanent positions.

Truth will out

However upsetting it may feel to be a target of public attacks, “in some ways it’s almost a badge of honor, because you’re doing work important enough to attract the ire of these ideologically motivated groups,” Kurtz says. She recommends that scientists, first of all, take a deep breath and recognize that other scientists have come up on the other side. The importance of fighting back unjustified attacks goes beyond your public reputation and the field’s credibility, Halpern says. “When you push back against attacks, you create space for researchers to be able to continue to ask tough questions and pursue contentious research.”

Mann says he has always had faith in the principle that truth will win out, and at this point in his career he feels that it has, he writes in his e-mail. “[D]on’t allow yourself to be sidetracked,” he writes. [F]ight back when necessary to defend your science against bad faith attacks, but the best defense here is a good offense. [J]ust keep on doing good science and you’ll be fine.”

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