Academic Culture From the Inside – a Guest Post by Steve Easterbrook

Steve Easterbrook is a comp-sci professor at the University of Toronto who has also worked at the University of Sussex and NASA. Recently, he decided to apply his software engineering expertise to the challenge of climate change, particularly relating to climate models.

This post began as a comment on a recent RealClimate post about media coverage of the CRU hack. I liked it so much that I requested his permission to reprint it here. Enjoy!

I’m afraid to say that a lot of the personal emails between academics in any field are probably not very nice. We tend to be very blunt about what appears to us as ignorance, and intolerant of anything that wastes our time or distracts us from our work. And when we think (rightly or wrongly) that the peer review process has let another crap paper through, we certainly don’t hold back in expressing our opinions to one another.

Of course, this is completely different to how we behave when we meet one another. Most scientists seem able to distinguish clearly between the intellectual cut and thrust (in which we’re very rude about one another’s ideas) and social interactions (in which we all get together over a beer and bitch about the downsides of academic life). Occasionally, there’s someone who is unable to separate the two, and takes the intellectual jabs personally, but such people are rare enough in most scientific fields that the rest of us know exactly who they are, and try to avoid them at conferences!

Part of this is due to the nature of the academic research. We care deeply about intellectual rigor, and preserving the integrity of the published body of knowledge. But we also know that many key career milestones are dependent on being respected (and preferably liked) by others in the field, such as the more senior people who write recommendation letters for tenure and promotion and honors, or the scientists with competing theories who will get asked to peer review our papers, etc.

Most career academics have large egos and very thick skins. I think the tenure process and the peer review process filter out those who don’t. So, expect to see rudeness in private, especially when we’re discussing other scientists behind their backs with likeminded colleagues, coupled with a more measured politeness in public (e.g. at conferences).

Now, in climate science, all our conventions are being broken. Private email exchanges are being made public. People who have no scientific training and/or no prior exposure to the scientific culture are attempting to engage in a discourse with scientists, and these people just don’t understand how science works. The climate scientists whom they attempt to engage are so used to interacting only with other scientists (we live rather sheltered lives- they don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing) that they don’t know how to engage with these outsiders. What in reality is a political streetfight, we mistake for an intellectual discussion over brandy in the senior commonroom. Scientists have no training for this type of interaction, and so our responses look (to the outsiders)  rude, dismissive, and perhaps unprofessional.

Journalists like Monbiot, despite all his brilliant work in keeping up with the science and trying to explain it to the masses, just haven’t ever experienced academic culture from the inside. Hence his call, which he keeps repeating, for Phil Jones to resign, on the basis that Phil reacted unprofessionally to FOI requests. You don’t get data from a scientist by using FOI requests, you do it by stroking their ego a little, or by engaging them with a compelling research idea you want to pursue with it. And in the rare cases where this doesn’t work, you do the extra work to reconstruct it from other sources, or modify your research approach (because it’s the research we care about, not any particular dataset itself). So to a scientist, anyone stupid enough to try to get scientific data through repeated FOI requests quite clearly deserves our utter contempt. Jones was merely expressing (in private) a sentiment that most scientists would share – and extreme frustration with people who clearly don’t get it.

The same misunderstandings occur when outsiders look at how we talk about the peer-review process. We’re used to having our own papers rejected from time to time, and we learn how to deal with it – quite clearly the reviewers were stupid, and we’ll show them by getting it published elsewhere (remember, big ego, thick skin). We’re also used to seeing the occasional crap paper get accepted (even into our most prized journals), and again we understand that the reviewers were stupid, and the journal editors incompetent, and we waste no time in expressing that. And if there’s a particularly egregious example, everyone in the community will know about it, everyone will agree it’s bad, and some will start complaining loudly about the editor who let it through.

Yet at the same time, we’re all reviewers, so it’s understood that the people we’re calling stupid and incompetent are our colleagues. And a big part of calling them stupid or incompetent is to get them to be more rigorous next time round, and it works because no honest scientist wants to be seen as lacking rigor. What looks to the outsider like a bunch of scientists trying to subvert some gold standard of scientific truth is really just scientists trying to goad one another into doing a better job in what we all know is a messy, noisy process.

The bottom line is that scientists will always tend to be rude to ignorant and lazy people, because we expect to see in one another a driving desire to master complex ideas and to work damn hard at it. Unfortunately the outside world (and many journalists) interpret that rudeness as unprofessional conduct. And because they don’t see it every day (like we do!) they’re horrified.

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11 thoughts on “Academic Culture From the Inside – a Guest Post by Steve Easterbrook

  1. Kate,

    So now that you know about the crazy world that’s academic research, do you still want to get a career as a climate researcher? It’s still not too late to back out. :-)

    OK, seriously. Consider that you’ll spend your waking hours trying to come up with novel scientific results, and getting slammed by other researchers for not attaining impossible levels of scientific rigour, and reviewing papers by other researchers where you get to slam other researchers for not attaining impossible levels of scientific rigour, and possibly write a thesis while you’re at it. Not to mention having to handle the incessant torrent of nonsense that the inactivists will be hurling your way. You’ll need to seriously think about whether this is a type of life you can handle.

    (I’ve been to a number of academic conferences myself, so I have an idea of the kind of “intellectual cut and thrust” there can be. But that’s only in good-faith discussions, which aim to enhance understanding, in contrast to inactivist ‘debates’ which only try to destroy knowledge.)

    bi

    [Yes, but I would get to discover stuff, and continually learn more about what I am passionate about discovering, and be pushing at the frontier of knowledge my whole career. I can handle the cut-and-thrust – remember, I write a climate change blog! It’s sure toughened me up, and I’m sure that I will toughen up more as I get older and more involved. -Kate]

  2. I am sure that every scientist reading Prof. Easterbrook’s post was nodding his or her head in agreement. Science is tough, and ideas get challenged all the time. This fact is something that the public just does not get. For a hint about the peer review process, Prof. Rabett’s post is tough to beat. The original e-mail thread is here. Snark like Reviewer #3’s is hard to come by:

    The real mystery here, of course, is how the McLean et al. paper ever made it into JGR. How that happened, I have no idea. I can’t see it ever getting published through J Climate. The analyses in McLean et al. are among the worst I have seen in the climate literature. The paper is also a poorly guised attack on the integrity of the climate community, and I guess that is why Foster et al. have taken the energy to contradict its findings.

    And I am sure that every scientist can identify with Kate’s essential curiosity. Basically, scientists are people who never repressed the insatiable curiosity about the world that all of us possess from birth.

  3. [Yes, but I would get to discover stuff, and continually learn more about what I am passionate about discovering, and be pushing at the frontier of knowledge my whole career. I can handle the cut-and-thrust – remember, I write a climate change blog! It’s sure toughened me up, and I’m sure that I will toughen up more as I get older and more involved. -Kate]

    Good answer. I reiterate my suggestion of getting a summer research assistantship so you can see lab life firsthand (volunteer positions are easier to attain, if you can afford not working for a summer).

  4. Deech:
    I think you typoed, and actually meant “Snark like Reviewer #3’s is not hard to come by.” Certainly I’ve heard such comments fairly routinely, and had my own reviewer #3 worked up enough that the video could have been of him being distraught at reviewing my paper.

    The essential curiosity, though, I agree covers a lot. Honest reviewer #3 types, and the scientists who read the review, get that worked up because they care about trying to understand the world. The honest author of that kind of review wants to see the science done right. The honest recipient of that kind of review is bothered because there is that nagging doubt as to whether they really have done the science right.

  5. Basically, scientists are people who never repressed the insatiable curiosity about the world that all of us possess from birth.

    That’s probably the best short summary of a scientists I’ve seen–someone with an insatiable curiosity. A sense of wonder helps too.

  6. Deech56, I take issue with you calling that ‘snark’. It could have been if it had referred to an ‘ordinarily’ poor paper. As it is, it’s if anything a demonstration of the art of understatement. Rhetorically painting an enchanted world in which ‘mysterious’ things just happen, instead of calling out the incompetence of reviewers and editor, is… I cannot find the word right now, but ‘snark’ it is not.

  7. Kate:

    I can handle the cut-and-thrust – remember, I write a climate change blog!

    Let’s just say that the kind of “intellectual cut and thrust” that goes on at scientific conferences can be a lot more heavy-duty than that involved in writing a blog — even in dealing with inactivists.

    bi

  8. “The bottom line is that scientists will always tend to be rude to ignorant and lazy people.”

    This jumped out at me: anyone who does any coding, particularly in the open source community, would recognise that. It’s a consequence of not wanting to waste cognitive work in a community. A culture of self-reliance is a result – you try desperately to only go to forums when you’ve definitely checked, thought it through. If you have, help is pretty much always forthcoming. If you haven’t, at best there’ll be a deafening silence. (Actually, this happened to me recently with a climate-related codey question, so I assume that means I was being lazy! I think I was, actually…)

  9. Deech56: “scientists are people who never repressed the insatiable curiosity about the world that all of us possess from birth.”

    Great sentence, stole that for my blog’s random quote block!

  10. Robert and Martin, I stand corrected. ‘Twas early in the morning, and because of recent hand surgery I am limited to one-hand typing. I think what I was trying to say is that the general public does not often get to see the scrutiny that scientific papers go through. I am more involved with proposal review, and reviewers are not shy in expressing their opinions on bad proposals, but the remarks stay in the room.

    And I am glad that my comment regarding curiosity resonated.

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