Rocking the scientific boat

14 12 2012
© C. Simpson

© C. Simpson

One thing that has simultaneously amused, disheartened, angered and outraged me over the past decade or so is how anyone in their right mind could even suggest that scientists band together into some sort of conspiracy to dupe the masses. While this tired accusation is most commonly made about climate scientists, it applies across nearly every facet of the environmental sciences whenever someone doesn’t like what one of us says.

First, it is essential to recognise that we’re just not that organised. While I have yet to forget to wear my trousers to work (I’m inclined to think that it will happen eventually), I’m still far, far away from anything that could be described as ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’. I can barely keep it together as it is. Such is the life of the academic.

More importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress – dissension. And hell, can we dissent!

Yes, the scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. If the rule of thumb stands against the scrutiny of countless studies (i.e., ‘challenges’ in the form of poison-tipped, flaming literary arrows), then it might eventually become a ‘theory’. Some theories even make it to become the hallowed ‘law’, but that is very rare indeed. In the environmental sciences (I’m including ecology here), one could argue that there is no such thing as a ‘law’.

Well-informed non-scientists might understand, or at least, appreciate that process. But few people outside the sciences have even the remotest clue about what a real pack of bastards we can be to each other. Use any cliché or descriptor you want – it applies: dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, jugular-slicing ninjas, or brain-eating zombies in lab coats.

The first tunnel of pain is in the review process itself. Ask any PhD student after receiving the referees’ comments on his or her first paper. Most often it involves an outright rejection, typically accompanied by some caring and supportive words like ‘fail’, ‘flawed’ and ‘nonsense’. It doesn’t improve either as you progress through your career – you just become numb to the pain and soldier on.

Then there’s the inevitable ‘Comment’ and ‘Response’ chain of love (and really, the subject of this post). Only yesterday I was discussing this aspect with a colleague who was rather upset at how political, dastardly and downright venomous a particular interaction in which we are involved had become. Here’s what typically happens in the Chain of Love:

  1. You write a paper with some colleagues demonstrating a phenomenon
  2. You hear through conference/colleague/blog grapevines that someone thinks that your paper, and by proxy, you, are full of shit
  3. Anywhere from 3-12 months after your paper has been published, you’ll receive a letter from a journal editor that so-and-so has written a ‘Comment’ (i.e., curse) and they now invite you to write a ‘Response’ (i.e., counter-attack).
  4. You write a careful Response and the two papers are typically (but not always) published together in the same issue of the journal.
  5. Your colleagues read the lunge and riposte with the same delight that schoolyard children have observing two of their mates pummelling seven colours of shit out of each other.

Yes, I’ve used some hyperbole here, but it’s not far off that.

Now, I don’t care how hard-hearted and seasoned a scientist you are: whenever this happens, it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of the attack. I’ve seen colleagues literally crumple in despair upon reading the first critique of their work. But, you have to pick yourself up off the canvas and get back swinging. It’s the nature of the biz.

I’ve been involved in many of these mêlées over the years, and I suspect there are many more to come. The two things I’ve realised about all this is that (1) you can’t get away with bullshit – someone will catch you out (and will go for your soul even if your work is rock-solid), and (2) if you’re NOT receiving this kind of attention, you should be asking yourself why you are in the sciences game at all.

What I mean is that the boundaries of scientific knowledge are rarely pushed outward without some kind of fight. Yes, testing, re-testing and re-testing are essential components, but there are only so many times one should ratify what we already understand well. For instance, in conservation biology we know that: (1) fragmentation is bad, (2) loss of habitat is bad, (3) loss of predators is bad and (4) few individuals = bad. Adding to these pillars of understanding might refine the details, but it doesn’t define anything new. If you really want to make a splash in science, you need to piss someone off, and there’s no better indication that you have done this than receiving a ‘Comment’ on your work.

So the next time someone attacks one of your papers, you should get over your depression quickly and instead feel rather proud that other scientists out there took the time to read your work and disagree with it. If you never get Comments on your research findings, you might consider asking yourself what you’re doing wrong.

CJA Bradshaw



10 responses

17 12 2015
Death of the question |

[…] Even in cases where there is sufficient time for questions, there appears to be fewer people willing (or able) to ask them, and even when someone does, they tend to be banal requests for clarification. Long-gone are the days that several attendees would rip into a presenter during question time, challenging their hypotheses, dissecting their methods, posing philosophical alternatives or contemplating the greater implications of their work. I’m sure few people want to be the focus of such examination, but like I’ve written before, it’s better to have negative comments than none at all. […]


30 01 2015
What’s in a name? The dingo’s sorry saga |

[…] readers will appreciate, I’m all for good scientific debate, but there’s an insidious underbelly to this dingo story that goes well beyond civilised […]


12 01 2015

Hi Corey, I know this post has been up for a while but I find it very interesting to read along with your post (or was it two posts?) on “mucking around the edges” (found them. and
So I think the problem is not scientists not doing enough of research that rocks the boat, but rather, “mucking around the edges” too much to actually have any impact, whether it rocks the status quo or not. So scientists end up ignoring the big issues generally and keep on documenting the loss of biodiversity for the most part, as you’ve said.
I’m just thinking, it’s like the way it is because scientists aren’t practitioners so their impact in the world is relatively limited, and and many big issues have already been studied, so they just have to come up with research that invites more controversy?


21 11 2014
Get serious about divestment |

[…] we? Most scientists I know absolutely dread reprisals of any form, whether they are from a colleague commenting on their work, a sensationalism-seeking journalist posing nasty questions, or a half-wit troll commenting on a […]


20 06 2014
Chris Parsons

I had a comment paper criticizing one of my papers some ten years ago. This past year, tucked in a paper written by the commenter, was a statement that I had been in fact correct, they were wrong, but no reference to either my paper or their much publicized rebuttal. No apology of course. It would be nice if in addition to rebuttal papers, you get to be able to submit “see I told you so” papers when more data and papers support your hypothesis and refutes the rebuttal. FYI the paper was about the impact of military sonar on whales and the rebuttal was used by some to avoid changing policy to something that was protective/conservation oriented


6 06 2013
Learning how to fail |

[…] the terms we use to describe the peer-review gauntlet appear designed to instil fear and inadequacy: reject or accept. I don’t know how many […]


29 05 2013
Why I love my job - Imperial College Conservation Science

[…] academics, the reliance on output metrics like impact factors to judge people’s worth, the testosterone-fuelled interactions, the daily grind and under-valued nature of teaching and marking, poor pay and deteriorating […]


17 12 2012
Dare to be naive

“Dare to be naive”.

This motto of Richard Buckminster Fuller often helps me persist through what Corey has aptly described as growing a thick skin “….through your career – you just become numb to the pain and soldier on”.

Upon each new collaboration, upon each new publication, upon each new offering – one just has to hope that next time it maybe different.


14 12 2012
Salvador Herrando-Pérez

I agree with Corey that science is based on (constructive) dissent, but also think that journals do favor disagreement against agreement and such bias is not healthy at all. I paraphrase from my PhD on the concept “density dependence” (an icon of dispute):

“It is telling that recent reviews of the determinants of population growth have classified ecological studies, not by intervening processes, population-dynamical types or any other ecological property , but by schools of thought and methods of investigation (Krebs 2002, Sibly and Hone 2002). Hence concepts, terminology, hypotheses, theories and mechanisms are unfortunately subordinated to models, statistics and research protocols. I think that the established split among different and increasingly sophisticated methods to analyse population dynamics will not necessarily help in drawing generalities for population ecology, as pledged by Turchin (2001). If we are all aiming to quantify the relative roles of drivers of population change, we need to bring our research agenda to a more unified framework that is able to integrate readily across taxa, disciplines and schools of thought. Attempts to achieve so (e.g., Berryman 2004) might not initially agree with many, because any conceptual synthesis is indeed a simplification, or because they might be discipline-specific (e.g., fisheries, Rose et al. 2001). Certainly, unresolved matters such as “does age-structure matter in long-term signals of climate and density feedback?” (e.g., Stenseth et al. 2004, Berryman and Lima 2006, Coulson et al. 2008) leave behind the impression that mathematical development alone drives ecological knowledge at the expense of understanding the mechanisms driving population dynamics. If we acknowledge that “… there are not ten million kinds of population dynamics; rather there are a multitude of essentially trivial variations on a few common themes” (Lawton 1999), those initiatives seeking generalities seem not only worthwhile, but necessary. Science progresses by innovation, but innovation necessitates an ordered body of knowledge to progress.
I think that ‘Ecology’ would benefit from publications where disagreeing experts came together in co-authorised publications. Density dependence is an iconic example of how ecological debate can result in confusion rather than clarification of points of view. I have queried authors involved in different disputes about density feedback, and the common understanding is that one party is right and the other is wrong. Colloquial language warns that “two wrongs do not make one right”. Indeed, the standard editorial approach is to give opposing authors the chance to write reciprocal responses, which leave readers (normally with much less insight into the specific matters at discussion than the published authors) with the option of adhering to either view, or staying indecisive. Alternatively, journal editors could give authors in dispute the choice between contentious (current standard) or cooperative papers. I believe journals should be proactive to create conditions for agreement, a feature missing in the editorial policy of all journals of which I am aware of.”

Berryman, A. A. 2004. Limiting factors and population regulation. Oikos 105:667-670.
Berryman, A. A., and M. Lima. 2006. Deciphering the effects of climate on animal populations: diagnostic analysis provides new interpretation of soay sheep dynamics. The American Naturalist 168:784-795.
Coulson, T., T. H. G. Ezard, F. Pelletier, G. Tavecchia, N. C. Stenseth, D. Z. Childs, J. G. Pilkington, J. M. Pemberton, L. E. B. Kruuk, T. H. Clutton-Brock, and M. J. Crawley. 2008. Estimating the functional form for the density dependence from life history data. Ecology 89:1661-1674.
Krebs, C. J. 2002. Two complementary paradigms for analysing population dynamics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 357:1211-1219.
Lawton, J. H. 1999. Are there general laws in ecology? Oikos 84:177-192.
Rose, K. A., J. H. Cowan, K. O. Winemiller, R. A. Myers, and R. Hilborn. 2001. Compensatory density dependence in fish populations: importance, controversy, understanding and prognosis. Fish and Fisheries 2:293-327.
Sibly, R. M., and J. Hone. 2002. Population growth rate and its determinants: an overview. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 357:1153-1170.
Stenseth, N. C., K.-S. Chan, G. Tavecchia, T. Coulson, A. Mysterud, T. Clutton-Brock, and B. Grenfell. 2004. Modelling non-additive and nonlinear signals from climatic noise in ecological time series: Soay sheep as an example. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 271:1985-1993.
Turchin, P. 2001. Does population ecology have general laws? Oikos 94:17-26.


14 12 2012

Great stuff Corey and so true. The painful process of becoming a published PhD qualified scientist means you either build tough skin and a strong foundation or you get off the game train and do something else. Maybe people only listen to scientists when something goes wrong? A growing sense of foreboding backed up with an enormity of evidence over decades does not seem to be enough these days.


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