From Cut-Throat to Collaborative Science: Why Calling Out Bad Science Isn’t the Answer

Competitive nature in scientific community has led to cut-throat criticism culture

Calling out PhDs and their scientific theories has become a common practice in recent years, as we aim to remove bad science from the field. Many of us are taught to call out bad science in graduate school, and suggest all of the possible flaws in the science.

I read on social media post last week that someone was ‘calling out bad science’ because of its flaws. I actually felt very uneasy when I read this. This almost felt like the black-and-white kind of thinking we see in other walks of life.

One of the most important lessons that I learnt from my mentors was not to call out bad science, but rather to think of the receiver of that critique. No one will pay attention to a criticism if it is harsh. Instead, the receiver will just think that you are a <insert choice words here>. This is not really the most effective approach.

We don’t need to call out bad science, but rather, encourage PhDs to do well.

Why Is Academia Competitive?

Calling out bad science can make scientists defensive, discourage constructive criticism

The scientific community has always been a competitive field. PhDs spend years researching and experimenting to create new theories and discoveries. However, this competitive nature has also led to a cut-throat environment, where scientists are quick to criticize and tear down each other’s work. This culture of criticism has become so ingrained that even well-respected scientists are not immune to being called out for their work. I can think of many incidents where I think “oh boy, that is not what I would say.”

Calling out scientists shuts down science. I know it is hard to do – trust me, I struggle with coming up with the right words. Many times, I am no better.

Encouraging and supporting scientists to be empathetic is better approach

While the intention behind calling out bad science may be noble, it’s not always the best approach. In fact, it can often do more harm than good. When a scientist’s work is called out, they can become defensive and may even double down on their theories, refusing to admit any faults. We are human, and humans do human things. This can result in a rift between scientists and create an environment where constructive criticism is no longer welcome. This is super easy to happen.

So, what’s the alternative? Instead of calling out bad science, we should be encouraging and helping scientists to be more empathetic. What do I mean? Just think of the audience or the receiver, and try to understand where they are coming from.

When we see scientists and PhDs do things that we don’t think is right, rather than calling people out, we need to be empathetic that they made a mistake and encourage them to do better. The goal is not to make the culture more cut-throat and competitive, but to say “how can we help?”

Check out this post on how to be a leader in science.

Focusing on positives, praising good work, and creating supportive culture can motivate all scientists

It is funny – almost all of the things we do in science, especially as a researcher of organizations and people, is often the complete opposite way of what we actually teach students to manage large corporations. Sigh.

I take the perspective in how I ‘manage (eg., parent)’ my kids. One perspective is to have high costs and penalize them when they have done something bad, such as yelling and scolding when things go wrong. Trust me – I do this far to often as a parent.

But, another way is to focus on how we can teach and have them grow from a not-so proud experience. I often talk about uncomfortable things with my kids, and I don’t like it. For example, how to react when something goes wrong, what happens when you ‘accidentally’ steal, and how to handle moments when it easier to do something that would be considered a short-cut (who likes to make their bed?!).

Check of this post about doing good science, over the normal way we view science.

The goal is to have others learn from these moments so that they end up doing better and be better role models in the future.

(Yes, I realize that this might sound paternal, but I really do think having a conversation and making the situation actually a funny learning moment does help for everyone of all ages to learn).

Chasing Success In Academia: Should You?

Creating a culture where mistakes are not punished, but seen as learning opportunities can guide scientists to better approaches

Instead of focusing on the negatives, we should focus on the positives. When a scientist produces good work, we should praise and celebrate their achievements. But, more importantly, when they make a mistake, we should focus on the fact that they tried. By doing this, we can create an environment where scientists feel supported and motivated to continue doing good work.

This positive reinforcement can lead to a virtuous cycle, where more and more scientists strive to produce high-quality work, knowing that their efforts will be recognized and appreciated. Yes, I know that this is very idealistic, and it will likely not happen. However, it is important to note that we need to make this a vision and a mission of what ‘good science’ looks like. Good science is what it felt like to be a kid learning something new for the first time. It is marvelous and exciting.

Encouraging and supporting scientists also means creating a culture where mistakes are not punished, but rather seen as an opportunity for growth and learning. Scientists are human, and they will make mistakes. Instead of immediately calling them out, we should approach them with empathy and try to understand their thought process. By doing this, we can help them see where they went “wrong” and guide them towards a better approach.

Remember, the world is complex, and often what we think is wrong is actually only wrong in our ideas. They might have just seen the world differently.

Here is a post about 50 things we need to teach PhDs.

Addressing systemic issues and ensuring diverse range of perspectives are important to prevent bad science

We also need to create an environment where scientists feel comfortable seeking help and support. Too often, scientists are expected to work alone and figure things out on their own. Even when you ‘collaborate’, the work is often alone. This can be a daunting task, especially for those who are new to the field. By creating a culture where scientists can ask for help without fear of judgment, we can ensure that they have the support they need to produce high-quality work.

It’s important to recognize that bad science is often the result of systemic issues rather than individual failures. I don’t believe a lot of issues are due to individual faults, but are often to an array of much more complex issues. For example, PhDs and scientists are not working in a vacuum, but rather in a complex system that includes funding, publishing, and academic institutions. These systems can often create incentives that prioritize quantity over quality, leading to the proliferation of behaviors many of us would not feel proud openly speaking about.

Ironically, it is difficult to get scientists and researchers to speak openly about how science ‘really’ is done for fears of being called out as a bad scientist / researcher.

To truly address the issue of bad science, we need to address these systemic issues as well. This means creating incentives that reward high-quality, SLOW research over quantity, and investing in academic institutions that prioritize the well-being and success of their students and faculty.

As I also say, there is nothing better to improve social capital at work than birthday cakes. I know that Michael Scott did a lot of silly things in the Office, but he often had much of the right idea. 🙂

We need to ensure that there is a diverse range of perspectives in the scientific community. Diversity prevents groupthink, and other not so helpful behaviors, where scientists reinforce each other’s biases and assumptions. This can lead to science that is less valid and reliable being accepted as fact, simply because it aligns with one’s beliefs. (The confirmation bias is a well known idea).

If you want to help science become more reliable and valid, check out this post.

One would hope that diversity can lead to more rigorous testing and examination of scientific theories, ultimately resulting in better science.

In conclusion, calling out bad science is not the most effective approach to removing bad science from the field. Instead, we need to encourage and support scientists to produce high-quality, SLOW work. By creating a culture of empathy and positive reinforcement, we can create an environment where scientists feel supported and motivated to do their best work. Mistakes should be seen as opportunities for growth and learning, and scientists should be able to seek help and support without fear of judgment. We need to create a culture of empathy, positive reinforcement, and support for scientists and researchers.

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