Criticizing a Scientist’s Work Isn’t Bullying. It’s Science.

The New York Times Magazine story on Amy Cuddy brings up extremely important problems in science. But we cannot equate criticism with harassment.

Scientific Critique
If scientists who scrutinize each other’s work are painted as bullies, scientific criticism will become radioactive.

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When teaching research methods to first-year college students, I used to tell them that scientists try to prove themselves wrong. But last year, I took that out—it felt too dishonest. At its best, science is about figuring out where we’re wrong, about constant course correction.

Unfortunately, the pressures society has placed on scientists have made it almost impossible for us to admit when we’re wrong. We’re rewarded—by funding agencies, by prestigious scientific journals, by the media—for cherry-picking and polishing our results to make them look as shiny as possible. “Groundbreaking” discoveries are often the standard for getting a job or getting promoted. When the stakes are that high, it’s easy for scientists to start seeing what we need to see—to convince ourselves that our embellished findings are rock solid because we have to.  What’s worse, there is little incentive for scientists to challenge and correct each other. Doing the hard work of checking each other’s discoveries is not glamorous. And when scientists bother to do it, the response is rarely gratitude—instead, efforts to point out legitimate errors in methodology are often met with accusations of bullying. Indeed, science’s dirty little secret is that scientists are often actively hostile to the very mechanism that science depends on: self-correction.

The story of Amy Cuddy, as told in a recent New York Times Magazine story, illustrates why self-correction is so rare in science. In painting a moving portrait of Cuddy’s life over the past few years, it conflates Cuddy’s experience as the target of scientific criticism with her experience as the target of something much more vicious and universal: actual bullying. Susan Dominus’ piece centers around the replication crisis, the “revolution” in psychology whose aim is to improve the rigor of psychology research (the revolution that, according to the title of Dominus’ piece, came for Cuddy, one of the researchers behind the power-posing finding that has failed several replication attempts). As Dominus writes, “Cuddy, in particular, has emerged from this upheaval as a unique object of social psychology’s new, enthusiastic spirit of self-flagellation—as if only in punishing one of its most public stars could it fully break from its past.” As an example of this zeal for taking Cuddy down, Dominus describes a blog post written by Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn, saying, “Cuddy felt as if Simmons had set them up; that they included her TED talk in the headline made it feel personal, as if they were going after her rather than the work.”

These characterizations frame the blog post in question as a personal attack, motivated by a desire to punish Cuddy. But when I read it, what I see is a well-reasoned criticism of a scientific claim—exactly the kind we need more, not less, of. Scientific journals will sometimes publish findings that turn out not to be true (I know—I’ve been an editor at several journals and I’ve made mistakes). That’s OK, as long as we have a mechanism for correcting the record. And the kinds of critiques that Simmons and Simonsohn wrote are our best hope for correction. It’s understandable that the criticism felt personal to Cuddy—when we critique a scientific claim, we are necessarily saying that the people making it are wrong. But as painful as it may be, this type of criticism is completely appropriate, and even necessary, for science to proceed.

Cuddy’s story is an important story to tell: It is a story of a woman living in a misogynistic society, having to put up with internet bullies who I have no doubt have cruelly and unreasonably criticized her life and career. But it is also a story of a woman experiencing completely appropriate scientific criticism of a finding she published. Conflating those issues, and the people delivering the “attacks,” does a disservice to the fight for gender equality, and it does a disservice to science.

We live in a world where women who rise to the top almost invariably must endure systematic harassment and threats of assault along the way. Being a public figure demands heroic levels of bravery from them, particularly given that women are still underrepresented in positions of leadership. But if we are going to deal with this problem, and tackle the harassment women face in their fields, this requires us to be clear about the line between criticism and bullying. Blurring the line by painting scientific disagreement as bullying dilutes these efforts and makes it harder to tackle the problem. It sends the message that any disagreement with a woman could be seen as an attack, and it makes it easier for women’s claims of harassment to not be taken seriously.

If scientists who scrutinize each other’s work are painted as bullies (or worse, sexist bullies), scientific criticism will become radioactive—no scientist in her right mind will go anywhere near it. This would have terrible consequences for science. Social science has the potential to help people, to make society more just, but we’ll only get there if someone does the hard work of verifying and replicating promising leads and, when necessary, correcting our errors.  Finding solutions to society’s problems requires a robust social science that is full of criticism and debate.

It cannot be controversial for one scientist to say to another, “I think you’re wrong,” or, “Show me your evidence.” Indeed, the motto of the Royal Society of Science is nullius in verba, which means “take no one’s word.” There should be no sacred findings in science. When someone challenges a finding, even one that has the potential to empower women, we should be grateful for the extra scrutiny—it is by surviving this type of scrutiny that a promising scientific finding has any chance of becoming a scientific fact.