Saturday, 5 August 2017

Why I hate the ‘tone debate’ in psychology and you should too


There is an extremely boring, seemingly indestructible, debate going on in psychology about the ‘tone’ of scientific debate in our field. The root of this peculiar argument is that the nature of some discussion surrounding open science and reform is apparently too negative, too critical, and too personal, and that this pushes people away from doing better science.

The entire debate is so nauseatingly self-absorbed. It really pains me to see so many smart colleagues who I respect and admire devoting so much of their time to being concerned about this issue. Hey, it’s their time, who am I to judge. But what a waste it is of our collective energy, and I wish people could see why.

A few unfiltered thoughts, and then I will never speak of this again.

1. There’s this idea that open science will attract more 'disciples' if it comes across as having a more positive, inclusive tone. Goodness me, what a load of honking bullshit this is. Open science will attract individual adopters for three reasons: (1) when scientists grow a conscience and appreciate that their public mission demands transparency and reproducibility; (2) when scientists decide to take advantage of individual incentives (career and social) for being open (e.g. Registered Reports, joining SIPS etc.); (3) when funders, journals and institutions make it a requirement. All of these are in progress. The cold embrace of open science by gatekeepers and regulators is in the post – it is only a matter of time before transparent, reproducible practices will be required if you want to spend public money. That’s why I tell early career researchers to get ahead now because the ground is shifting under your feet, and I am one of the people shifting it. What ‘tone’ we set in public discourse about science (and open science) is thoroughly irrelevant to all of this; indeed, thinking that this changes anything is nothing more than hubristic navel gazing.

2. Stop seeing open science as some kind of evangelist movement that needs to save souls from damnation. Yes it is a political movement. Yes, the more people adopt it the better. But you won’t get them to do it through the tone of critical discussion or by preaching from the pulpits. We aren’t desperate god botherers in suits waving leaflets at people on the street, and we aren’t leading the congregation in prayer. We get scientists to adopt open practices by changing the system to make openness attractive and essential.  

3. Leave Satire The Fuck Alone. If we are so thin skinned that we can’t laugh at ourselves from time to time (and, jesus, even learn something from it), we are already lost. 

4. Don’t fall into the sanctimonious trap of being concerned about tone on behalf of others. No, you are not the voice of early career researchers or the vulnerable or Nixon's silent majority. All of these communities can speak for themselves, and they do, especially in the flat landscape of social media. Yes, your crappy anecdotes about some researcher who really wanted to be open but was put off by a sharp twitter discussion count for precisely dick.

5. Psychology is a discipline that has no problem praising the Living Fuck out of individuals when they publish some stunning result or get a big grant. Hey guess what: critique follows the same rules. You live by the sword, you die by it.

6. Ignoring the ‘tone debate’ isn’t the same as turning a blind eye to abuse. There is painfully little evidence that any of the much touted tone infractions constitute abuse, or that abuse in the open science community is any greater than the baseline in academia. And guess what, it isn’t the job of the open science community to solve all problems in academia.

7. Follow Wheaton’s Law if you prefer but don’t let anything stand in the way of delivering the criticism that is required in service of your mission. Sometimes this will require setting a tone that risks causing offence. That's ok, so long as it is in service of the mission. I say this repeatedly, but remember who you serve. It isn’t yourself and it isn’t your colleagues. It isn’t early career researchers or vulnerable scientists, or scientists without a lot of resources. Science serves the public who pay for science. Ask yourself how our snivelling, embarrassing debates about ‘tone’ appear to the people who fund the work we do. Ask yourself how pathetic this all looks and why other sciences aren’t doing it. Then snap out of it.

8. Finally, and this is the kicker: Discussions about ‘tone’ were originally orchestrated (rather shrewdly, it must be said) by opponents of reform as a way of diverting attention from systemic changes to science that (a) threaten the organic structures that underpin their own power and (b) would expose their own sloppy research practices. We are in an intensely political period and whenever you argue about tone you are playing your opponents’ game by your opponents’ rules. While we tear ourselves sideways worrying about such trival nonsense, they are smirking from their thrones.

This is the last thing I will ever say about the ‘tone’ debate. We need to change the way psychological science works, not the way some people talk about psychological science.