[Note 6/14/15. Before reading this, see the comment thread here.]
I recently read a thoughtful blog post by Lior Pachter on the importance of admitting errors in one’s work. There’s much to agree with in the post, but on first reading something seemed slightly off to me, though I couldn’t quite figure it out.
I just got off a long flight where I could sit down and read the post over again, and I think I have a better sense of what was bugging me. In this post, I’m jotting down a few thoughts on the last part of Lior’s post, the subsection titled “The personal critique of professional conduct”. Specifically, I think he’s guilty of some serious dissembling in this section and I would prefer he be more direct.
Lior argues that we should not be afraid to criticize the professional conduct of our colleagues in a personal manner. That is, if people refuse to admit errors, or oversell their work to the popular press, we should call them out on it. And if people benefit (via grants, jobs, etc.) from questionable conduct, then this isn’t a purely scientific issue, it’s partially a personal issue, and discussing these personal issues shouldn’t be taboo.
It’s of course hard to argue with some aspect of this claim, almost to the point that it’s a bit of a straw man (is it really considered taboo to criticize people for overselling their work? This type of criticism is like half of my Twitter feed).
This is where I think Lior is dissembling; my reading of his blog is actually rather different than what is being claimed. Let’s take a recent example:
In the post The most embarrassing citation ever?, Lior takes aim at a paper with a bone-headed citation error. As the title of the post points out, this was indeed an embarrassing error. The text of the post also points out how embarrassing the error was. For good measure, he includes a cute internet poll where readers can vote on just exactly how embarrassing this error was. Get it? The citation was an error! And it was was embarrassing!
The (presumably appropriately-shamed) student and her advisor actually do acknowledge the error in the comments of the post, but no one seems to really care, because let’s admit it–this post obviously isn’t really about a mistake in a citation. Nor is it about criticizing anyone’s professional conduct, or any such high-minded pursuit. It seem clear (to me at least) that the real goal here is to mock people Lior sees as his adversaries, in this case members of the GTEx Consortium and their colleagues.
So I’m going to make a claim, which I think is consistent with the observations. Lior is saying something (via his actions) much stronger than “we should feel free to criticize the professional conduct of our colleagues”. Rather: if you think your colleagues are undeservedly sucking up resources like grant money, then you should Take. Them. Down. By any means necessary. Accuse them of fraud. Call them innumerate. Mock their minor errors . Is your colleague a male that asks lots of questions at meetings? Perfect, imply he’s holding back female scientists. Very little is off limits–once a person “deserves it”, then the gloves come off.
Lior clearly goes back and forth on whether he should openly endorse the view that public mockery and derision of “deserving” people should be part of the standard toolkit in scientific discussion. I think he should be honest and embrace it.
I see two potential problems, however, with this approach. First is how one decides who is “deserving”. Lior seems to mostly dislike 1) overhyped claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny and 2) people who don’t use Cufflinks . Dan Graur, on the other hand, thinks scientists with lots of middle author publications deserve to be put in their place , as do people who use too many big words in their papers. But I suppose everyone could use their own standards as they see fit.
The second problem for me is that a “culture of denunciation” sounds rather unpleasant. As I’m building a lab, I’m trying to convince very intelligent people to turn down excellent jobs outside of academia in exchange for the intellectual community that we provide. Robust and even intellectually-aggressive criticism is obviously part of that community. But are we really saying that being publicly denounced as an ‘abuser of science‘ is standard rhetoric now? Will my future advice to students be “If someone you dislike gets a grant, accuse them of fraud and–who knows–maybe it’ll stick”? What person in their right mind would possibly want to join such a community?
 Clarification: the Cufflinks remark is meant entirely tongue-in-cheek. I admit I chuckled while writing it, but your mileage may vary.
 Correction: This sentence used to read “women with lots of middle author publications”. A commenter writes (correctly) that a more generous interpretation of this post is that Dan is singling out a single woman, rather than “women”, and that his argument is that scientists with middle author publications should know their place in the “scientific hierarchy”. I have edited the post to reflect this correction, and I regret the error.
 Clarification: in response to a comment from Lior Pachter, I have added a link to this sentence (I’d thought the reference to the previous section was clear).