Civility in Science Is Not a Luxury. It’s a Necessity.
by Amy Cuddy, originally posted to Twitter on October 22, 2017
I’m glad that today’s New York Times Magazine article has shed light on some of the dynamics that are playing out in my field and likely in other sciences. The article exposes the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the intensity, frequency and nastiness of the treatment that I’ve experienced. And I’m not alone. I may be the “poster child,” but there are scores of others who’ve been subjected to this same, special brand of scholarly harassment that silences and humiliates, shutting down scientists and science.
It’s a bit maddening to see debates about whether it is, indeed, really all that bad. Worse yet are the dehumanizing debates about whether I “deserved it,” which feel eerily similar to discussions about other kinds of harassment. I know what has happened. The people close to me know what has happened. And many of the actors know what they did.
Do I want you to know all of the ugly facts? Do I want to do a document dump so that you can actually see the scope and horror of this? Yeah, of course I do. Because I’m human. And I’m angry. And I want to be seen.
But here’s why I’m not going to drag all of it out for everyone to inspect: because I’d be engaging in the exact kind of incivility that needs to end.
We don’t need a new target or villain or punching bag. The only way to elevate the civility and quality of scientific debate is to radically depart from personal attacks and public shamings. We have to replace fear and indignation with excitement and curiosity. If there’s a genuine interest in understanding any complicated scientific phenomenon, there is a way forward. It requires openness, listening, trust, and collaboration. And if there’s a genuine interest in getting scientists to adopt newer, more rigorous methods, then the people with the most knowledge to contribute to that effort must lead with dignity and compassion. Be good hosts. Invite people in. Get to know them. Show them around. The vast majority of people are trying their best to do good work. Leverage that.
And, as someone who people have been afraid to speak up for, I need to say this: When you see something happen that you know is wrong, do something. Don’t be a bystander. It would mean a hell of a lot to that person who is being targeted.
Civility does not come at the expense of open, honest, robust debate. In fact, it’s the other way around: incivility comes at the expense of those things, which is not only obvious through observation but is also strongly supported by several lines of research (Christine Porath’s book Mastering Civility and Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule review a lot of this research.)
For example, research shows that in workplaces with incivility problems, people
- Decrease work effort and commitment
- Are more distracted and less creative
- Avoid seeking feedback
- Refrain from speaking up about errors or potential problems
- Stop helping others
- Experience health costs
- And are less likely to share
It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that none of these things can be good for making science more open and rigorous.
Civility in science is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.
(Photo credit: Animal Welfare Institute)