Live and let die

Vincenzo_Camuccini_-_La_morte_di_Cesare (~1804) copy 2.jpg
Vincenzo Camuccini “La morte di Cesare”

An aversion to asking tough questions in the here and now can lead to a messier and more painful outcome in the future.

Everyone knows young scientists have it tough these days. There’s a glut of postdocs on the job market, too few faculty positions, too little money to be had. Tenure has gone from being a reasonable expectation to some kind of El Dorado mirage in the sands, and junior faculty are frequently in the Catch-22 position of depending on research output for career advancement but simultaneously being deprived of research time by other responsibilities. 

Everyone knows this. And by and large, everyone is sympathetic. There’s plenty of affably aghast senior faculty around shaking their heads and saying “I would never have gotten tenure if I was a junior group leader now”, there are stirring words of support from funding bodies and societies, and an acknowledgement amongst the untenured that everyone is stuck in a very precarious situation.

But this general recognition that young scientists are facing near-unprecedented challenges when it comes to career survival has one weird and paradoxically unhelpful manifestation: the live and let die attitude towards research work.

Specifically, it’s the general aversion to asking tough questions about people’s data and its underlying assumptions. When people stand up to give a seminar or a conference talk, the questions afterwards tend to be underarm deliveries: Have you tried this yet? What will you do next? Does this other approach show the same effect? You seldom get the bowel-churning ones that call the entire research programme into question: How reliable are the data underpinning this model? Is there an alternative interpretation that fits the same observations? Has someone done this already?

It’s easy to understand why. You don’t want to put people on the spot. Nowadays the stakes are so high, and careers are so precarious, that you don’t want to torpedo someone’s whole research programme before it has a chance to get going. And of course, if you’re not tenured yourself then there’s a double reason for such discretion – not only do you want to show solidarity with your peer group, you don’t wish to risk causing offence. Asking a tough question may inadvertently make it look like you’re trying to sabotage the prospects of your contemporaries under cover of open debate.

This all tends towards a rather genteel and sleepy atmosphere, the intellectual equivalent of an after-sex cigarette. The bare-knuckle discussions of yesteryear are mentioned as anecdote (“Do you remember when X and Y used to go hammer and tongs at each other?”) rather than example.

And while there’s certainly no need to replicate the aggressive and sometimes personal attacks of that era, there’s a huge downside to this more considerate salon atmosphere: people are not calling out the problems. Sometimes even when they’re obvious. If people attend a seminar or a conference and hear something that they flat-out disagree with or decide is wholly misinterpreted, they are most likely to sit on their hands, seethe, and then bitch about it afterwards (“What did you make of X’s data?” / “Were you also a bit uncomfortable about what X was saying?” / “Do you think X’s model is really supported?”)

But you actually need to discuss those questions in seminars, in meetings, and in conferences. You need to ask the hard questions. Call out the assumptions. Question the data. Highlight where the flashpoints of criticism lie – it’s actually for the speaker’s own benefit.

Because the problem is that this doesn’t mean that the hard questions never get asked. Instead, they get asked under cover of anonymity during the peer review process, where there is no chance of real-time response or even input and support from other members of the community. 

Live and let live becomes live and let die. The victim, often unaware that their work has aroused such ire, is suddenly confronted with swingeing and merciless examination. Data which they may have presented publicly and even solicited feedback on, data which they may have assumed was acceptable, are suddenly vilified. This applies to papers, but is probably at its most damaging with grants. 

Instead of a discussion or a trial, the dynamic turns into that of a mugging, a backstreet murder. Greek democracy becomes Roman politics. “Et tu, Brute?” (You too, Brutus?) Caesar reputedly exclaimed as his erstwhile friends knifed his life out, and fear of that same horror and disbelief is a daily accompaniment for scientists in some fields: you often do not know whether even your closest friends rate your work because these kind of conversations do not occur.

In fact, possibly the biggest defence of seminars or conferences and other public forums of scientific exchange in the context of their research value is that they remain the only formats where research communities are compelled to consider the same data at the same time, en masse. Such community-level discussions are the dream that online platforms such as bioRxiv yearn for, but they still don’t come anywhere close to the hermetic immediacy of a conference presentation.

So be brave, and stick your hand up when something doesn’t feel right. Be unafraid to admit you couldn’t follow something (you’ll never, ever, be the only one). Get used to saying “This is probably a stupid question, but…” An unacknowledged rule with scientific presentations is that if you’re thinking it, you’re never alone in thinking it. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re not alone. And if you are alarmed at the direction a whole bunch of people are going in, you’re definitely not alone. So ask what’s on your mind. And if need be, seek out the speaker afterwards to check that nothing was taken personally. 

Because if your concern goes unvoiced, it’s a fair bet that the speaker will still have to confront that angle later on, and it might be far, far uglier. In the long run, they’ll thank you for asking the tough questions now, instead of being surprised by them later.  

Acknowledgement: this posting developed in discussion with Graham Warren.

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