Knife and cutting board

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

How to p*ss off a scientist

I was more than a little mad when I came into the lab and found that my experiment had been hijacked. I was purifying a protein, which was supposed to stir overnight in a beaker of activated charcoal, but someone had moved my beaker off of the stir plate and onto the bench.

At first, I assumed someone had made a mistake. They needed the stir plate, moved my beaker off for a second, and forgot to replace it. But no: This, clearly, was a deliberate act of aggression.

If you spend a lot of time around scientists and you think you might someday want to piss one off, this is important stuff to know.

We were graduate students, and we had each been assigned an area of the lab to be “in charge of.” If you know anything about graduate students, you know this was a bad idea. Sparse resources breed territoriality, and no one has sparser resources than graduate students. Our principal investigator (PI) had assumed we’d just keep the instruments in our area calibrated, keep the benches clean.

Enter the newly appointed Lord of the Stir Plates; all hail his rotating magnetic wisdom. One day, he decreed that if he felt your beaker had been sitting on a stir plate for too long, he had the right to remove it without letting you know. Rather, he didn’t decree it; the jerk just moved the beaker.

Even more frustratingly, he didn’t ruin my experiment. The protein still purified just fine (stupid, robust protein). So I didn’t get to report him to our PI as triumphantly as I would have wanted to (“Um, no, he didn’t ruin it—but he might have!”), nor could I get any nonscientist, such as my then-girlfriend-now-wife, to care.

WHAT SHE PROBABLY SAID: So … this guy moved your experiment 4 inches to the right.
WHAT I PROBABLY SAID: Yes!
WHAT SHE PROBABLY SAID: And … it still turned out OK.
WHAT I PROBABLY SAID: Yes, but you’re focusing on the wrong part of the story! You’re not seeing the whole picture! You’re missing the point entirely!
WHAT SHE PROBABLY SAID: … Am I?

Okay, so the transgression may sound small, but I was pissed. In fact, I was so pissed that I still remember the incident a decade later, even though other things from that period—like, say, all of cellular and developmental biology—have faded from memory.

I don’t think scientists on the whole are angrier or calmer than the general population, but different triggers make us mad. If you spend a lot of time around scientists and you think you might someday want to piss one off, this is important stuff to know.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

Let’s say there’s a special scientist in your life that you’ve really been hoping to enrage. Here are some fun things to try:

  • Make sweeping generalizations about scientific concepts based on one data point. Start them with “my friend knew this guy …” or “once I heard someone say on the bus …”.
  • Ask what the scientist is working on. When the scientist responds, immediately zone out. There, that feels better.
  • Make important equipment unavailable for a petty logistical or political reason. “Sorry,” you’ll tell a scientist, “I know you need to use that instrument, but the Highly Arbitrary University Office of Too Many Administrators has instituted Unnecessary Form 722A-01, which you can’t fill out until you’ve finished the Completely Irrelevant Online Training Seminar, which requires a Creepy Background Check at the Obscure Basement Office You Can’t Find, That Doesn’t Understand What You Do, And Is Always Closed. But you can’t do any of this, because Rival Grumpy Professor is in charge of the program and is still upset that someone in your lab gave someone in his lab herpes in 1977.”
  • Tell the scientist you’re kind of a scientist yourself because you watched an episode of Cosmos and part of Shark Week.
  • Move their beaker off the stir plate.
  • Give the scientist an unimportant-sounding title, like associate research fellow or postdoctoral technician. Apart from pissing off the scientist, this has the added advantage of keeping the scientist’s college friends content that they made more intelligent career decisions than the scientist did.
  • If you’re the scientist’s spouse, say something like, “You know what would be great? If your lab would let you work part time. Do you think they’d let you do that?”
  • Assign the scientist to mentor a series of thoughtless, pretentious, disinterested high school students whose parents work in the next building. Good morning, Madison and Caleb. Can you please finish your Starbucks coffee in the hallway? Can you please not touch that instrument? Can you please—no, I’m not on Tinder. No, I don’t have time to watch a Vine video of your buddies doing parkour. What do you mean you’re going home for the day? You’ve only been here half an hour. What do you mean you want a reference letter?
  • Suggest that vaccines cause paper cuts, that global climate change is a result of lesbian weddings, that the Earth is 239 years old, and that evolution can’t be real because look how goofy this sloth is.
  • Require PIs to find meaningful employment for all postdocs leaving their labs. Panera Bread doesn’t count, not even the management track.
  • Call a scientist with a Ph.D. “Mr.” or “Ms.” If they kindly correct you and say, smiling, “Heh, technically, it’s ‘Dr.,’ ” ask to see their medical license, and then instruct them to Google “average medical doctor salary.”
  • Stand on the scientist, unzip your fly, and go for it. (Read the title of this article out loud a few times—there, now you understand.)
  • Let the scientist watch while you ask an average ninth grader to add one-digit numbers without a calculator.
  • Invite an unassailable seminar speaker—someone with clout, tenure, or just a personality more assertive than most scientists (which doesn’t take much). Ask this person to present nonsensical results based on a bombastic and misinformed theory. Force the scientists to applaud. Forbid snarky questions.
  • When asked to review a scientist’s publications, take full advantage of your anonymity and reject them for reasons that make the scientist say, “Wait, what?” For example, if a paper used a sample size of 100 subjects, write something like, “The sample size should have been >50 subjects!” Wait, what?
  • Tell the scientist the day before the new semester begins that he or she has to teach a large section of a new class designed to bring communications and geography majors up to speed on basic quantum thermodynamics. Provide no educational resources, teaching assistants, or additional salary. Spread a rumor that the class is an easy “A” and that the professor will happily admit new students at any point during the semester.

If the scientist isn’t pissed off yet, don’t worry; there are still plenty of beakers to move, stir plates to commandeer, and arbitrary intellectual barriers to construct. Because that’s what pisses off scientists most of all: taking away their ability to freely ask and answer questions.

Also, decaf coffee.

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