Scientific Cuddles vs. Criticism

A bit more than a month ago, I arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to spend my summer working with some of the wonderful data sets being collected at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan and to enjoy the unique flair of a US college town (why does it smell like weed everywhere?). So far, I think I have acclimated to local habits pretty well. I’m pre-emptively asking people how they are doing; I’m making sure to tone up my enthusiasm (i.e. “nice” → “that’s amazing!”, “sounds good” → “What a great idea!”, “like it” → “love it to death”) to avoid any misunderstandings. I think I have almost figured out how recycling works here—although it is very confusing, after all, we Germans take our recycling quite seriously. I even feel tempted to start talking about my bigger goals and plans, and how I strive to become the best version of myself.[1]Just to prevent people from thinking I’m a slob. Actually, I’m sort of the best version of myself that is currently on the market per definition, but then maybe I’m just too lazy to apply counterfactuals to my everyday life. I’m not sure whether I would be a better and/or happier person if I tried to apply counterfactuals to my everyday life. Many times, I enjoy the increased display of positive affect.

However, there is that one thing that I can’t quite get over: The low tolerance for negativity, including most forms of direct or even indirect criticism, in social interactions in the academic context.

Exhibit 1:
I give a talk that goes fairly well. Afterwards, there are some very engaged questions from faculty members whose opinion I value highly. However, later one of the US students asks me whether I didn’t mind that I got roasted. I’m utterly confused because I normally assume that critical questions are a good sign: People are awake and thinking about the topic (instead of sitting in the back of the room, checking their emails, slowly letting their mind drift towards the relaxing summer vacation that is not really going to happen anyway because this is academia, after all).

So bitter
Wait, did I just get roasted? (Photo by Mark Daynes)

Exhibit 2:
A student gives a talk about an issue relevant to ethnic minorities. I think that they are asking a great question, but it’s pretty darn obvious that the research design is totally useless to address that great question. For a second, I think about saying something—but then again, I’ve already said a lot of critical stuff that day, so I just cross my fingers and hope somebody else will say something. After all, the central problem is so clear, and it has just been brought up in the previous talk, so I know that the others know—somebody has to bring it up, right? But that doesn’t happen, and so all following “questions” are just affirmations of the importance of the research topic plus the ubiquitous suggestion that W could moderate the association because that totally makes sense following theory X by author YZ.

Exhibit 3:
A friend tells me that they were involved in the preparation of future student instructors. They have been instructed to instruct the instructors to never tell a student that they are wrong. “You are on the right path!”—could be okay if used sensibly, “That was a good try!”—off limits, “That’s wrong”—nope nope nope.[2]College rankings and how US universities have been turned into corporations and what that means for academia is probably a topic for a separate blogpost…

So there you have it. I don’t want to re-iterate the tone discussion that we had some time ago within the psychological community. I don’t even want to talk about cultural differences in the way we express criticism, although that is certainly an interesting topic.[3]Have you heard about the Dutch? Wow, they are so rude!

I personally, emotionally, viscerally hate being criticized. Even if it’s just opening a manuscript file that has been overhauled or gently annotated by my advisor (who is definitely more the gentle type) or our proofreader (who is also extremely friendly):[4]Love her to death. OMG see what a month in the US did to me. It hits you like a thousand knives stabbing you all over your body.

Life is like a box of chocolatesLife is like a box of chocolates, scientific criticism isn’t. (Photo by Jennifer Pallian)

And yet I think being criticized is an essential part of science.

If nobody criticizes my work, I won’t learn that I’m wrong. Or probably I will know that I’m wrong because that’s my null hypothesis,[5]As with most null hypotheses in psychology, p < .05 most of the time, obviously. Just kidding. but I will never learn that I am much wronger than I think I am and in a multitude of ways. We all need critical feedback from our scientific community to learn. Sparing others from the potential negative emotions will do them a disservice in the long run, because science is about figuring out the truth, not about feeling good.

But even though valid scientific criticism can help us learn, it need not be constructive in the sense in which the word is normally used, ”maybe instead of trying it this way, wouldn’t it be nice if you tried it that way?” If somebody points out a valid problem in my work, it is not their job to suggest a solution—that is first and foremost my job, because I decided to dive into that particular research question and now have to figure out the best way to address it. If there is actually no proper solution, tough luck—for me.

Scientific criticism does not even need to be nice and friendly. Sure, I generally prefer people who don’t act like assholes, and I firmly believe that being an asshole is not the most effective way to interact with others. But the question of whether a critic is being an asshole is orthogonal to the validity of the scientific argument they raise. If they make a good point, they make a good point.

So the next time I see a research design gone awry, I will probably say something. And so should you.

I’d probably still try to be nice ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Addendum: Following the recommendation of Brian Boutwell, you might want to take a look into Daniel Dennett’s suggestions for successful critical commentary. Also, Simine Vazire blogged about painful scientific experiences before it was cool![6]Don’t judge my, I’m just a filthy second-stringer. And Hanne Watkins just wrote a great blog post (to some extent in reply to this one) about how we should expose ourselves to criticism to get used to it.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Just to prevent people from thinking I’m a slob. Actually, I’m sort of the best version of myself that is currently on the market per definition, but then maybe I’m just too lazy to apply counterfactuals to my everyday life. I’m not sure whether I would be a better and/or happier person if I tried to apply counterfactuals to my everyday life.
2. College rankings and how US universities have been turned into corporations and what that means for academia is probably a topic for a separate blogpost…
3. Have you heard about the Dutch? Wow, they are so rude!
4. Love her to death. OMG see what a month in the US did to me.
5. As with most null hypotheses in psychology, p < .05 most of the time, obviously. Just kidding.
6. Don’t judge my, I’m just a filthy second-stringer.

30 thoughts on “Scientific Cuddles vs. Criticism”

    1. Maybe that would be a great exposure therapy for psychologists! According to what I’ve heard (i.e. speakers being unable to finish their talks because of the large number of hyper-critical questions, sometimes even before the talk has started), taking the average of psychology and economics should result in a field with a fairly decent yet productive discussion culture.

    1. I’ve come to learn that the term bullying is frequently used as a strategic accusation-surely, nobody would ever want to defend a bully! But that is horrible in my opinion, because there are people being actually bullied and suffering a lot. Same goes for accusations of ad hominem attacks. “Your work sucks” certainly is not nice, but it’s no ad hominem.

  1. Julia, interesting topic and observations.
    So you wrote “If nobody criticizes my work, I won’t learn that I’m wrong.” – what if they don’t criticize your work (at least some of the potential critics), exactly because they don’t want you to learn (and/or improve your research design, for example)? After all, science is highly competitive, isn’t it?

    1. I have to admit I hadn’t even considered that option (call me naive)! Might be true though, in particular in the more competitive subfields. Have you made the experience that people withhold constructive criticism on purpose?

      1. From my own experience, the only thing scientists love more than competition is being right about something and rubbing it in the face of others. So I think we’re safe on this one.

  2. Some constructive criticism from your proofreader:

    “we Germans take our recycling quite serious*ly*”

    :-))

    1. Are you telling me my English sucks, huh?! Check your language privilege! No but thank you, fixed it 🙂

  3. Huh, I thought Ehrenreich’s “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America”* was exaggerated for impact, but your description is quite compatible with what she says.

    This reminded me about a blog post I wrote a while back**. Was a good opportunity to remind myself of the three thoughts regarding criticism acceptance, i.e. not identifying with one’s ideas, realising it’s not deadly if an idea is thrown into the bin, and keeping in mind that everything changes and nothing probably matters that much 🙂

    * interestingly, it has a less critical US title, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America”
    ** https://mattiheino.com/2015/10/10/defeating-the-crisis-of-confidence-in-science-3-3-ideas/

    1. Last year when I visited the US, I was reading “America the Anxious”, which was another great take on the Happiness/Positive Thinking/High Productivity Industry in the US. It’s certainly not like everybody in the US is buying it, but certain groups are–and even among those who don’t, the American Dream and Protestant work ethic are pretty strong (speaking as the gloomy German that I am). Are you listening to the Black Goat Podcast? I think at some point Alexa talked about the first time she realized that her value as a person is not tied to her success. Having talked to other grad students, that sentiment is really strong: If you try really hard you will be successful, if you’re not succesful you’re a failure because why wouldn’t you try as hard as possible?!

      I like your blog post a lot, in particular: “3. Nothing will last (and this, too, will pass – but the past will never return).”–first part matches my personal philosophy, second part gives me some hope that we are not just running in circles 😉

  4. I also think that expressing positive emotions is more common in the US than in Germany. But I think academia in Germany is more hierarchical than academia in other countries such as the Netherlands. (I am not sure how hierarchical academia is in the US.) I have experienced that grad students in Germany and Austria voice concerns and questions less often and less freely than students in the Netherlands. Students in Germany and Austria seem to be more afraid to say something the professor and senior researchers would not agree with than students in the Netherlands. In other words, professors in Germany and Austria are granted more authority, respect, and power than professors in the Netherlands.
    That said, I think the differences within a country are larger than the differences between countries.

    1. Interesting point about hierarchies–haven’t been to the Netherlands yet (shame on me), but I’ve heard multiple such stories. My German co-students certainly always seemed a bit afraid to criticize professors, and that certainly has to do with status (OMG it’s a PROFESSOR). As for hierarchies in the US, I feel that they are very strong but rather aligned with “eminence” than with titles—it’s not enough to be a prof, but if you’re a famous prof, students will do anything to please you (including: no criticism/lots of praise; working 10 hours a day six days a week; basically taking all your shit without complaining because working in the lab is “such a great chance”). Not sure to which extent that is hierarchy and to which extent “just” students trying to maximize their outcomes and chances on the job market. And then again, universities in the US are super-heterogeneous (there’s a between-universities hierarchy that I haven’t experienced in Germany).

      And of course, as always, lots of variance within countries, between and within universities, departments, labs, and different fields. You should write something about hierarchies in academia, would love to hear more details!

      1. Thanks for your interesting response. I made similar experiences in Germany and the US. And I think a lot could be said about hierarchies in academia. I would love to write about it- although it is a controversial topic. When I have the time and dedication to write about it, I will get back to you.

  5. Interesting post! It sounds to me like this varies quite a lot between places. My general experience has always been engaged discussion, sometimes critical questions (which I value) but usually it is more interested but not necessarily critical follow up questions. I have very rarely had the aggressive, hostile encounters that my supervisors warned me about.

    I totally agree that criticism is necessary but in my experience you typically get it in science. I don’t think you need to be an asshole and I react negatively to that – although I also understand that this emotional judgment can go awry. I have some colleagues who are the nicest people you meet on Earth but whose questions in seminars come across as hostile. The adrenaline and context can warp the situation and I try to keep that in mind.

    It’s weird you say this about US campuses. I had colleagues who worked both in London and in MIT and they claimed that giving talks in London is a walk in the part whilst MIT is like running a gauntlet. My experience of London has always been that people are interested, critical, but friendly, and that’s how it should be in my opinion. MIT may not be like other US campuses (in fact, all the talks I have given in the US were similarly engaged but friendly as I would find in Europe). Anyway, I don’t really have the same perception you describe here.

    1. Hey Sam, thanks for sharing! And given that all my observations are based on anecdotes, I think it’s good you added yours to counterbalance.

      It might as well have a lot to do with more local cultures (down to the lab, heard a lot about differences within psych at UM). Though I do think the specific “safe space” vibe that is provided to students is stronger in the US. Career stage (I’m a student after all) might as well be the hidden moderator here 😉 though that’s again just speculation.

      1. “I’m a student after all”
        You know, for some reason I thought you were a PI…

        Anyway, I think it is interesting how the different perceptions are. When I gave a talk in China one of the audience members kept interrupting and starting discussions on various points. I didn’t find it aggressive (although I’d prefer interruptions to stick to clarifications – discussions are better after the talk in my opinion). Several people apologised to me afterwards though that the guy is always like that and I shouldn’t be upset or whatever. But I really didn’t take it in a bad way either way.

      2. I suspect local effects are significant. My anecdotal observations are similar to Sam’s. My partner works in a biology lab at PSU, and they’re not shy *at all* about criticising where it’s warranted. And sometimes when it’s not. From what she’s told me I’d say they err more on the side of being a bit too harsh.

        Her tales of experiences giving talks in Europe are much more positive, with no lack of suitable criticism.

        1. Interesting! Hearing all these stories, I wonder whether there are any systematic studies on that out there. Just curious what the variability within and across different fields and regions looks like.

  6. Important post Julia – criticisms isn’t only useful for research but also for management and the development of organizational policy in any area. A great concern in Australia is the lack of critical analysis in politics and large organization with strong suppression of internal critical analysis and evaluation often providing an easy path for polices many people know won’t work but are too afraid to criticise. Australia tends to follow the United States with a ten year or so year lag, undertaking changes in business and policy that have already been discarded as not working. The classic current example has to be the rampant use of hot desking and the commensurate drop of careful reading and analysis of documents and background information beyond short paragraphs on the screen.

    1. Hey James, thanks for your comment, glad you liked the post! As for large organizations and politics, I can imagine that the problems just get worse as you increase scale. If you don’t criticize a scientific talk, well probably just another piece of bad science out there. If you don’t criticize harmful policies, the damage could be potentially enormous.

  7. When it comes to essay’s feedback, I’ve noticed that many students are disappointed and hurt when they receive criticism. Of course we all want to hear and read how amazing we are, but how else can we get better if it’s not by realising what can be improved?

    Flattery is good for the ego, not for learning. We can all benefit from knowing what we are doing fine, inasmuch as we know what actually works, but it doesn’t add to what we already know, i.e., it doesn’t make us any better. Still, combining positive and negative feedback has the best impact on people. Who wouldn’t be heartbroken after getting *only* negative feedback over and over again?

    I’m only talking to constructive criticism. The other kind of criticism is not different from being an asshole.

    1. I agree! Especially for students, it might be a mixture of developing their academic self-esteem (hey, you can master that science thing!) and actually make them aware of the mistakes they made. However, views on the right “mixture” vary greatly. For example, we have been taught it needs to be [1 positive thing] + [1 potential improvement] + [1 positive thing], and to be honest, that doesn’t make much sense to me—in particular because when you know that that’s the “rule”, it doesn’t really feel like an accomplishment anymore when you get this combination because it’s what everybody gets (a hedonic treadmill?). So for students, I generally prefer [point out strengths/what was well done] + [point out all potential improvement], and, if necessary [one meta-commentary: I know this looks like there’s still a lot of work to do, but that’s normal and part of the process; happens to me all of the time but after some years, it will suck less]

  8. Hey Julia. My take on this is that no one should lick b**t but at the same time criticism should be done in kind words as it’s not nice for people to feel attacked. Emotionally speaking, criticism results in negative feelings and, therefore, the least tolerant you are in feeling negative, for whatever reason this may be, the most anxious it may make you feel in your work environment a.k.a academia. I also need to point out that I have spent all my academic levels from bachelor to PhD having German supervisors in a British environment and the way they attempt criticism is by default what most people would consider a bit aggressive, even more British ppl than me. I believe that the reason some institutes have regressed towards open criticism is, to an extent, because of the mixed cultural backgrounds of people in academia nowadays which dictates what each person perceives as criticism within ‘polite limits’ that doesn’t make them feel bad. That is to say it’s not all black and white; People should neither escape criticism all in all or criticism to be performed with no social boundaries just for the moral sake of it. people should get criticised for their science but it should all happen with gentleness and all other rules that dictate any social group that people who study management for example take into account, one of them being indeed how you can make them feel. Negative feelings can be exacerbated with how something is said.

    1. I’d sign all of that! I mean, except for the part about your German supervisors, since I don’t know them 😉

      1. haha..I can accept that 🙂 after all that was my own experience and I mention it mostly to make my point on cultural variances. As much as I disliked their inability of tact, I loved their humour 😉 (Gosh, under your greatly written piece of work, I noticed all my grammar mistakes. That’s what 36C degrees do. Enjoy summer!)

        1. Rest assured I didn’t notice any grammar mistakes (Germlish for the win!). And thanks for sharing your experiences—after all, the whole post was based on my experiences and more anecdotal data helps with averaging out the biases 😉 Thanks, hope you also have a great summer.

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