On collective action and “intimidation” in science

A recent letter in Nature by Robert Warren and Mark Bradford* got me thinking about collective action by scientists: scientists acting together in some organized fashion in order to pursue some shared goal (besides just collaborating to do research). In particular, I’m thinking about collective action by scientists, directed at their fellow scientists, as opposed to at, say, policymakers.

Warren and Bradford begin by bemoaning petitions (typically directed at politicians) that recruit signatures from scientists in an attempt to bolster the petition’s perceived credibility. They note, correctly, that scientific debates can’t be settled by tallying up how many people believe the claims of each side. But that’s not the part of the letter that really interested me.

They go on to make what I think is a more interesting suggestion: they argue that “gang science” is being used to “quash” unpopular ideas in peer reviewed journals. As examples, they cite recent letters to Nature on managing introduced species, and on how to model the evolution of eusociality. Both letters were signed by over 130 scientists. Warren and Bradford state that “in the absence of new data, such huge conglomerates contribute little more than intimidation.”

I don’t have a fully coherent response to this yet, but I found it a thought-provoking claim. It never occurred to me that something I always thought of as innocuous–a joint letter to Nature–could be seen as intimidation! So I figured I’d share my initial thoughts, and hopefully folks will comment and help me think through this more.

1. Would it still be objectionable if each of 130+ people decided to write to Nature individually, rather than them all getting together and signing one letter? Because I don’t really see the difference. Assuming (as I believe it’s safe to assume) that no one was browbeaten into signing those letters, and no one misunderstood their contents, I can’t really see how those letters were intimidatory just because they had lots of signatures. A whole bunch of people each strongly disagreed with some claim in Nature. Why is it “intimidation” if they all say so? Are not all scientists entitled to express their views? Once one scientist has publicly expressed their view on some scientific matter, should no other scientists be permitted to do so as well? And if you say, ok, it’s not intimidation per se, but it could be seen as intimidation by the scientists whose views are being attacked, my response is that those other scientists are the ones who are contaminating what ought to be a purely scientific debate with false cries of “Intimidation!” If a bunch of scientists all get together and make a logical, empirically-grounded argument about why you’re wrong, I don’t think it’s legit for you to claim that they’re all ganging up on you. If you do so, I think it’s you who’s trying to win an argument by appeal to something other than logic and evidence, not them.

2. Warren and Bradford seem to imply that it would be ok for a bunch of people to all sign a letter if they had new evidence. But I don’t see why that matters. Surely you can intimidate people into accepting new evidence just as much as you can intimidate them into accepting existing evidence. If I threaten to punch you if you don’t see things my way, that’s intimidating whether or not there’s new evidence to support my views!

3. Or does having new evidence matter because it means that a debate is not going stale? That is, is the real issue here not really “intimidation” at all, but people continuing to debate one another even though no one has anything new to say? If so, then I don’t really see the problem here, for two reasons. First, if someone says something in a journal that others disagree with, they’re entitled to respond if they want to. And if they don’t have anything new to say, well, presumably that’s because the authors of the original article didn’t have anything new to say! So if you have a problem with seeing a stale debate in print, I think your beef is with the editors who decided to run the original article, not the signatories of the letter responding to the original article. Second, there are some debates that we have no choice but to keep having, and indeed wouldn’t want to stop having, even if they’re irresolvable and even if no one has anything really new to say. Some issues are too important, and too unavoidable, for us all to just stop talking about, even if they can never be conclusively resolved to the satisfaction of all.

4. Getting back to “intimidation”, it seems to me that it’s only intimidation when there’s some stated or implied threat. For instance, a petition to an elected politician carries the implicit threat that the signatories won’t vote for or otherwise support that politician, and instead will vote for other politicians who support their goals. Or imagine if a letter to Nature said, “We the undersigned control hiring and funding decisions at a whole bunch of universities and funding agencies. We will refuse to hire or fund anyone who doesn’t agree with our views on topic X, no matter what evidence and arguments those with opposing views may offer and no matter what their views on other matters.” I agree that that sort of thing should be out of bounds. But there’s no explicit threat in the letters Warren and Bradford cite, and I don’t see why just having lots of signatures carries an implicit threat. I mean, what’s the threat–change your mind or we’ll continue to disagree with you? That reminds me of the old Robin Williams joke about what police in England shout at criminals (2:12 mark). 😉

5. While lining up lots of signatories to a joint letter to Nature may not be intimidating, it can be seen as a sort of rhetoric or salesmanship. For instance, it could be seen as salesmanship directed at those not directly involved in the debate. If I wasn’t qualified to judge the merits of opposing sides in some scientific debate, but yet for whatever reason felt I had to choose sides, then yeah, I might consider the number and qualifications of the people supporting each side. I don’t know anything about nuclear fusion, but I don’t believe in tabletop cold fusion because the vast majority of physicists and chemists who do know something about it think it’s bogus. But that seems pretty innocuous to me, or at least unavoidable. People who aren’t qualified to judge some scientific controversy themselves always have to use some sort of heuristic in order to decide which side to believe, should such a decision be necessary. And “favor the side that has more and better-qualified supporters” is a perfectly reasonable heuristic in such cases. Of course, “those not directly involved in a debate” often includes journal editors. Letters with lots of signatures could be seen as salesmanship directed at editors, implicitly saying something like “Don’t give space in Nature to people who hold minority views on this topic, there are more important and interesting things you could publish instead.” And perhaps letters with lots of signatures could be seen as salesmanship in other ways; I’m not sure. And I’ll bet that this bothers some folks, although for reasons I’ve explained previously, it doesn’t really bother me, at least not much. Science isn’t salesmanship-free, it never has been, it can’t be, and we wouldn’t want it to be.

6. Here’s the most interesting thought that occurred to me. Historically, groups of like-minded scientists have always acted collectively in all sorts of ways to promote their scientific views to their fellow scientists. What Warren and Bradford call “gang science” has long been with us, and it’s long been about much more than just petitions or joint letters to Nature! A big reason Darwin and his followers won the debate over the fact of evolution was that they were organized and their opponents weren’t. They arranged for and wrote pro-Darwin articles in periodicals, they coordinated efforts to elect their own to leadership of scientific societies, they organized public lectures promoting evolution…Heck, a bunch of Darwin’s friends even went so far as to start their own journal in order to have a place where they could publish their views (and presumably, not publish their opponents’ views). That journal? Nature. Like-minded scientists have always promoted their views (and opposed those with other views) by inviting each other to give talks, getting together to write review and ‘perspective’ papers, hiring one another, writing letters of reference for one another, organizing working groups, banding together to ask for government funding for pet projects, etc.** I wouldn’t claim that any and all such activities must be legitimate just because they’ve long gone on. Just because something has long been done doesn’t make it ok. But I admit it is hard for me to imagine science being done by human beings without any such activities happening. And I don’t see how to draw a line (even a fuzzy one) between legitimate and illegitimate collective action here. So if you’re bothered by joint letters to Nature with lots of signatures on them, I suggest that you should be bothered by lots of other really common scientific practices!

7. I say all this as someone who may well soon be on the receiving end of a joint letter, if my just-published Trends in Ecology and Evolution piece on the intermediate disturbance hypothesis draws the sort of reaction I hope it will. 😉

*Full disclosure: I know Mark Bradford from our days as postdocs at the same institute, he’s a good guy. But I haven’t ever communicated with him about the issues raised in his letter, and my thoughts here are strictly my own.

**”etc.” now includes “blogging”.

28 thoughts on “On collective action and “intimidation” in science

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I think you brush aside too easily the implicit threats and implications of such “gang science” style. Of course no one threatens anyone directly and probably (hopefully) no one even thinks about that. But intimidation may work much more subtle for example when a gang science letter is used by a reviewer or funding board to squash ideas by simply using it existence instead reading and thinking about issues themselves. Or a hiring committee uses them as excuses for rejecting candidates without properly assessing research interests. Or what will it do to postgrads who are trying to form independent ideas?
    I guess it matters a lot whether gang science is used to squash ideas (and all the related power struggles and fights for money or positions) or whether it is used to promote ideas, like in the positive examples you provide under #6. Didn’t know THAT about Nature.
    Data on “intimidation”would be nice, for example if citation rates of articles promoting a certain idea decline after a gang science letter in opposition to the idea appeared, or if funding for research based on attacked topics dries up etc. I am glad that a discussion on this issue has been started.


  2. Thanks for calling my attention to this controversy. You have homed in on the word “intimidation” on which I can see both your points but also Arne’s. However, the bigger issue to me is that I think it is really bad science. Such letters rarely bring new models or data or identification of fatal flaws to the debate. Such letters do get published in Science and Nature, but they’re almost all coauthored by a handful of people. The ones with 130 signatures are almost all purely opinion pieces and are more intended to put a stake in the ground of what is acceptable science. That’s the only real reason for such large numbers – to imply that the original piece is outside the mainstream. And they’re usually lead authored by really big names. This is arguing by reputation and fashion. Nature and Science are incentived to print such letters because they stir the pot and lead to PR and ultimately subscription dollars. But I really wish they wouldn’t. I was just at a conference where somebody said how lucky ecologists are that we’re not economists where everything has political implications impeding the scientific objectivity. These letters are evidence that ecology (and evolution) are indeed subject to such pressures. In short, I think these letters which argue by reputation and fashion are the absolute low point of science and it is embarrassing to me that Science and Nature print them.

  3. A couple other things to consider, though I don’t have a solid opinion on this controversy:
    (1) What if the author *does* find this sort of thing intimidating? What if the line of work could produce interesting new science, but the author gives up on it and does something else because of the overwhelming push-back? You might argue that the author isn’t thick-skinned enough, but (many) scientists are human and have feelings. What if the author is a member of an underrepresented group, say, and and has learned from experience that it’s not worth going up against an army, even to pursue something that has promise?
    (2) You say that simply disagreeing isn’t intimidation. But what is we take the argument out of a journal and make it face-to-face. If you had to stand up on stage with 150 other people who had already told you that they disagreed with your work and you had to single-highhandedly debate them in front of an even larger audience, would you not find that intimidating? What is it about the format of the argument (on paper vs. in person) that makes it not intimidating?

  4. Good comments all.

    Looks like one emerging theme here is that many folks don’t like these sorts of letters, but can’t quite agree on why. Are they “intimidation” (perhaps subtle)? Or are they distasteful for some other reason, as Brian suggests? Brian, as I read him, finds such letters distasteful not because they’re intimidatory, but because they’re a particularly naked form of salesmanship or rhetoric with no compensatory redeeming qualities.

    Another emerging theme here is the extent to which the reactions of others should dictate whether something counts as “intimidation”. This is, I think, just a special case of a broader, and very important, issue, in science (and in life!) Someone, or a bunch of people, does something that isn’t illegal or obviously harmful, but which some other people don’t like. Under what circumstances is the displeasure of others deserving of some sort of consideration or respect? Clearly, there are circumstances in which the displeasure of others should count for an awful lot! For instance, a recent guest poster at EEB and Flow talked about how, as a Pakistani woman, she doesn’t appreciate even well-intended remarks that focus on her appearance or background rather than her science. Hopefully it’s obvious that she’s absolutely entitled to feel that way and that others ought to respect her preferences on that. Conversely, there are students who find any criticism of their science from faculty or reviewers to be very intimidating, no matter how it’s phrased. Hopefully it’s obvious, even to the students in question, that they need to get over that. That is, their own preferences on what’s “scary” or “intimidating” aren’t really entitled to any respect or consideration.

    And while those two contrasting examples are both clear-cut, there are plenty of situations that aren’t. Further, there are plenty of situations where you can’t just decide what’s right by appeal to the attitudes of the majority. You can’t just say “respect the displeasure of others whenever most people feel that you ought to do so.” Because there are lots of circumstances in which we think of the feelings of others as deserving of respect and consideration even when those feelings are only shared by a small minority.

    Re: Arne’s attempted distinction between positive and negative salesmanship–that joint letters to Nature are ok if you’re promoting your own views, but not if you’re attacking the views of others…Unfortunately, I don’t think that distinction stands up to scrutiny. In the context of the sorts of debates cited by Warren and Bradford, any argument for your own position necessarily is an argument against the opposing position. It was much the same in Darwin’s day: evolution and special creation were mutually-exclusive alternatives.

    Now here’s a question: What if a bunch of people who agreed with Warren and Bradford had all signed their letter? 😉

    • Qualifier: I am a current collaborator with Mark and Robert.

      I want to add something to the idea of “intimidation” here. I think this process can be much more insidious than you seem to be willing to consider. One of the things that gang science has the potential of doing is identifying “outsiders.” In a perfect world, we would all be completely objective and this wouldn’t matter as all science would be judged on value as we would all carefully read all papers very, very thoroughly. But in the world of increasingly large volume of papers, we all use crutches and often spend time reading the work of a few as it is hard to keep up with the many. If your work is labeled by a number of “famous” and “often read” scientists as wrong or somehow off, a possible outcome may be things like reduced citation rates and preconceived notions about your work, simply because others may dismiss it or read it with preformed bias. This may be tinfoil hat paranoia, but as a ecologist/community ecologist, you should at least recognize the potential for ideology to replace science with a regularity that should make everyone uncomfortable.

      • Thanks for your comment Josh. As you probably guessed from the post, I don’t really agree. If lots of people disagree with a certain view, they disagree with it. The disagreement is there whether or not it’s revealed by, say, a joint letter to Nature. And I think that disagreement itself is by far the most important obstacle to the acceptance of minority ideas in science. In particular because people who actually work on a particular topic are going to read papers on that topic. It’s only people who don’t work on a topic and who only follow the literature on that topic in the most casual way who might use a heuristic to come to a view on the topic. If you have a minority view on topic X, the thing that mostly prevents widespread acceptance of your views is *not* that people who don’t really follow the literature just accept the current consensus. The thing that mostly prevents widespread acceptance of your views is your inability to convince people who actually *do* follow the literature! After all, those people are the ones who are doing the reviewing, and the only ones who read the literature once its published. Convince the people who actually work on the topic, and in short order others will be convinced too.

        I agree that people may indeed be using heuristics to keep up with an increasingly large fraction of the literature these days. Like I said in the post, it’s a perfectly natural heuristic to just take for granted the majority view on *any* technical topic with which you yourself are unfamiliar. That’s why, for instance, I don’t believe in cold fusion, I do accept the Standard Model of particle physics, and (closer to home) I accept that current rates of extinction are extremely high relative to “background” levels. But use of heuristics seems to me to be a totally separate issue from “intimidation” or “salesmanship”. If you’re using heuristics to keep half an eye on some area of the literature, then yes, you’re only going to be passingly familiar with that area of the literature and you probably won’t be familiar with minority views in that area. But that’s because you’re using heuristics rather than making a serious effort to keep up with that area of the literature, not because anybody is engaging in “intimidation” or “salesmanship” or whatever. And since the number of papers published every year is growing exponentially while the time available for reading is not, use of heuristics is only going to grow.

        Worth noting as well that the reason we’re discussing this at all is because people with minority views on controversial topics managed to not only publish papers on those topics, but to do so in prominent venues. And those papers were not only published, but widely read and discussed, which is what elicited those “intimidatory” joint letters to Nature. So I have to say, if you’re concerned about the suppression of minority views in science, it seems to me that the two examples discussed by Warren and Bradford are perhaps the worst possible examples! If there’s “intimidation” or “suppression” going on in either case, it’s about the least effective intimidation or suppression in history! 😉 Indeed, as a commenter on Twitter suggested, there are cases in which high profile journals, far from suppressing minority views, seem unduly *keen to publish* minority views because controversy draws readers! So with respect, I’d suggest that if you want to cite examples of legitimate science in ecology and evolution being suppressed via illegitimate “intimidation” or “salesmanship” (as opposed to being “suppressed” in the usual “the reviewers read your paper, carefully considered it, and remained unconvinced” way), you really need to point out different examples. I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t any, merely that the examples cited by Warren and Bradford aren’t it.

  5. Jeremy – but the point is that normal disagreement involves 2 or 3 people signing a letter. One doesn’t normally go round up every person one can get to sign a letter to the editor/rebuttal. Therefore this has to be done with a specific motive. And as Josh and I both point out, really the only motive to get 130 people to sign a letter is to signal to everyone that the original research is out of bounds, non-normal,out of the main stream*. In short to enforce political correctness and group think. It also smacks of turning science into a voting process instead of an empirical question. I don’t necessarily care if the feelings of the original authors are hurt. And even if their careers are hurt, well every publication we put out there has implications for our career. What I really object to is that enforcing political correctness is detrimental to the progress of science.

    I am surprised to see you defending a practice whose main motive is to enforce group think. As again, one doesn’t normally round up 130 people to sign on when one sees a paper one disagrees with. The only reason I can think of to deviate from talking your objection over with 2-3 colleagues and then if you all agree writing it up (the normal practice) is to show how many people agree with you, which is a poor argument. If you think there is another motive on the part of the group of 130, tell me what it is.

    These to me are the central issues – the motive of the group of 130 for being so excessive and the effect it has and signals it sends on how science proceeds.

    *A more cynical motive is for lots of people to get another line saying Nature or Science in their CV, and that probably plays a role, but its not a good reason to justify the practice either!

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for your further comment, it forces me to bring out some things I haven’t been clear enough about.

      I like your focus on the motives of those signing the joint letter, as opposed to on the reactions of those who might read the letter. And while I can actually imagine other motivations for lining up a bunch of signatories to a joint letter, I agree that the one you’ve identified is surely the main one. And yeah, I agree that that motivation, the desire to signal (as opposed to argue) that certain views are out of bounds, is usually a bad one (Though is it always? What if one was trying to signal, say, that a racist or sexist view was out of bounds?)

      I’m not in favor of the practice of writing joint letters to Nature with lots of signatures, and I don’t mean to defend it. The practice just doesn’t bother me that much. It doesn’t bother me much because I can’t really think of any cases where it’s had an appreciable effect on the course of science (though I can’t provide any data of the sort that Arne asked about in a previous comment). I worry much more about subtler and more pernicious sources of groupthink and mistake propagation in science. Practices that don’t (and probably shouldn’t) strike anyone as inappropriate but that nevertheless seem to me to have much stronger effects on the course of science. Bandwagons and zombie ideas and statistical machismo mostly don’t arise from people writing letters to Nature with scads of signatures.

      • Have to agree with you that this is not the worst bump in the road for out-of-the-norm science by any stretch. And as you say the unseen and unsigned kill it at the review stage is much more common and pernicious.

      • Man, those anonymous reviewers who didn’t like your study of the BBS data because you couldn’t estimate detection probabilities must’ve *really* annoyed you, Brian! 😉

        I agree with your point here. But I don’t think you intended your remark as a broader attack on peer review (right?), and I wouldn’t want to see this comment thread become a place for people to vent about peer review. So let me just take this opportunity to reemphasize something I said in another comment. Just because you fail to convince someone–a reviewer, an editor, even the field as a whole–of something doesn’t mean that those you failed to convince are biased or closeminded or ignorant or even wrong.

    • Re: people listing letters to the editor as Science or Nature papers on their CVs (or at least not clearly marking them as letters to the editor), I admit that I’ve only rarely seen people do that, and I’ve never understood why they do it. It’s just such transparent fakery. Anyone who knows anything about how to read a CV is going to spot that that’s not a real Science or Nature paper, it’s just a letter to the editor. And once they do spot it, they’re probably going to hold it against you. There’s no way you’re ever going to get a job that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten by listing a letter to the editor as a Science or Nature paper on your CV. So why do people ever do this? It’s all downside risk with no upside. And if you’re doing it not in order to fool anyone, but just because you just weren’t aware that letters to the editor don’t count as real Science or Nature papers, all you’ve done is reveal that lack of awareness. Which surely isn’t something you want to reveal on your CV.

    • Hi Jeremy – no I am not generically dissing peer review (nor do I want this thread to turn into that). But we all know that if one of those 130 people who signed the letter had ended up as a reviewer the paper probably wouldn’t have gotten into science or nature. Its a fine line whether a paper gets rejected because of genuine science/substance or because of politics/opinion, but the latter does happen. However, paraphrasing Churchill’s quote about democracy, peer review is a terribly flawed system, except its better than all the alternatives. Doesn’t mean papers don’t get rejected because of politics though!

  6. A genuine question: I wonder whether you really should or even could use gang science letters as heuristics and if, when and how you should actually cite them. They are not reviews or forum or opinion papers with their usually better supported claims and conclusions and better researched literature but just some subjective and personal views held by a group of people. Nothing wrong with that, and journals with gossip pages such as Nature and Science are good places to publish that. Things like these letters and pieces like Warren and Bradfords are actually the main reason I read these journals. It’s fun to do that over a coffee. My problem is really how are the letters used. They can easily be abused the way I sketched in my above comment. I don’t think that is why people write them, it is rather salemanship, but they are out there and they are read (and cited?) but to what effect?

    Re my distinction between negative and positive use, i.e. crushing ideas or promoting ideas, is a matter of style and language. Having said that, I couldn’t really object to style or language in several of these letters I read.

  7. To follow up on Brian’s comments, I would also say that your argument is potentially circular: group-think or science by vote identifying “outsiders” can lead to “‘suppressed’ in the usual ‘the reviewers read your paper, carefully considered it, and remained unconvinced’ way” and result in perfectly good science being at least temporarily suppressed. Citing the example of Darwin is not necessarily comparable to the publishing and scientific community of today. Citing Nowack and Wilson is doesn’t yet support your or my argument as the field (origins of eusociality) is so strongly biased by the number of people working on and associated with kin-selection theory that it is hard to say if any other points of view are suppressed or just grossly outnumbered (although some of the folks at ASU are working on that).

    Just because a paper is published and widely discussed does not mean that it succeeds in making an impact on others’ science and avoids the influence of group-think, even though in some cases, it should. Perhaps the best example I can think of is the passenger/driver hypothesis (MacDougall and Turkington) from the invasives literature. This idea has enormous merit and should have changed the way everyone studies their favorite pet invasive species (conduct an experiment to determine whether said invasive species is a driver of ecological impact or a passenger of anthropogenic disturbance), yet most invasive species are still solely credited with negative impacts. Yes, this study has been cited numerous times and is “published and out there” but for many taxa (e.g. invasive ants) it functionally continues to be largely ignored.

    • Hi Josh,

      Oh, I’m certainly not arguing that, just because lots of people hold a certain view, that minority views have been given a fair hearing! I would never argue that. But conversely, I would never assume that, because lots of people hold a certain view, that minority views *haven’t* been given a fair hearing. And I *certainly* wouldn’t assume that, when some *particular person* who holds a particular view rejects a paper espousing a different view, that that must have been because of bias or closemindedness. It’s perfectly possible for people to give fair hearings to one view even if they believe another.

      My default assumption, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary in any particular case, is that my colleagues are intelligent, competent, and fair. Do intelligent, competent, fair people make mistakes, even extremely serious ones? Absolutely! (I’m no exception) Do intelligent, competent, fair people ever fall victim to groupthink? Sure (again, I’m sure I’m no exception). But failure of a paper to make an impact or change others’ minds is *not* evidence that those others are closeminded or biased or incompetent or intimidated or whatever.

      • ” But failure of a paper to make an impact or change others’ minds is *not* evidence that those others are closeminded or biased or incompetent or intimidated or whatever.”

        It most certainly can be.

      • Sorry Jim, I’m not going to get into an argument about how well the peer review system performs, either in absolute terms or relative to other evaluation systems one could imagine.

  8. I have to say I’m on Jeremy’s side for the particular cases cited here. I don’t feel weight of numbers is an intimidatory tactic when it is backed up by solid scientific argument. It more likely just reflects (repeated) frustration at editorial practice, and probably the effect of social networks and email. If it weren’t for such easy, rapid communication, I strongly doubt tens or hundreds of signatories would collaborate on such public, damning responses.

    I’d love to run an experiment where papers/correspondence aren’t authored by name/institution, but instead by some pseudonym (e.g., ORCID number). This would give us a chance to see how much of all sorts of different kinds of effects signatures have, whether they’re positive, negative or neutral.

    For example, sending the same article out for review to multiple referees, either with full author details or ID number only, would allow us to see the “intimidatory” effects ‘big names’ have in a field. “I’m a big name, therefore my work is sound and publishable” vs “I’m a number, therefore my work should be held up to careful scrutiny”. It overlaps somewhat with the idea of double-blind peer review (and those awesome teddy bear videos) and it would ultimately make finding other relevant research by the same researchers a total beeyatch, but the experiment would be fun!

  9. I know you like to say provocative things to promote “push-back” but I’m having a hard time with some of your statements here which seem not to fall into that category, and am pretty firmly with several others on this, especially the idea that 130 signatories can only mean some people are playing a numbers/power game meant to influence opinion. If it were ten people I’d already be concerned, but 130+?

    You state “Would it still be objectionable if each of 130+ people decided to write to Nature individually, rather than them all getting together and signing one letter? Because I don’t really see the difference.”

    I see an enormous difference between those two things. Separate letters indicate, at least potentially, individuals forming individual opinions +/- of their own free will, out of their own mind. Signing a letter that somebody else drafted is more of a “yeah what the hell, I’ll sign on to that” type of action–it doesn’t necessarily indicate much about what each individual actually believes on the issue. And also, suppose you’re one of this group of who knows 150+, 200+ people, whatever it was, that gets an email message from whoever drafted the thing, asking if you’d like to sign on. Surely some professors will pass that on to post-docs and maybe even doctoral students? What if you don’t agree with either the letter content or the very practice itself? You’re immediately placed in a situation where your very decision not to sign can be used against you, potentially. People remember stuff.

    Before I got involved with climate scientists I never considered that scientists played political games, numbers games, were hung up on “consensus”, formed tribes, etc. Now I think differently, very differently. I can’t believe how opinionated, defensive, and full of personal animosities some of those people are. And it definitely colors the objectivity of some of them. I don’t want anything to do with some of them, in any way. And I wouldn’t go within parsecs of the economists.

    • Hi Jim,

      Not sure what I can say that I haven’t said already that would change your mind. Sorry, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

      For what it’s worth, I didn’t intend this post to be deliberately provocative, at least not much. I found Warren and Bradford’s claim of “intimidation” very surprising, and this post was me thinking out loud about that claim. I’ll note that at least one commenter largely agrees with me, and another (Brian) agrees with me on some points while disagreeing with me on others. So if you have a hard time with what I’ve said here, I would note that you don’t just have a hard time with my views, you have a hard time with the views of at least some other folks. My views on the issues raised here, while possibly minority views and certainly debatable, are not, I think, so out of line with prevailing opinion as to be strange, idiosyncratic, beyond the pale, or patently wrong.

  10. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t intend this post to be deliberately provocative, at least not much.”

    I know, that’s why I’m concerned with a number of the things you said here.

    • Look, by all means disagree with my views here Jim, you know I have no problem with that. But give me, and the folks who partially or mostly agree with me here, a little credit. I really would urge you against defaulting to the assumption that any views you strongly disagree with must be based on groupthink or bias or personal animosities or whatever, either conscious or unconscious. Sure, groupthink and bias and etc. are out there. But if you’re going to assume that they’re the root cause of any and all serious disagreements in science…I guess I’d just say that I hope that’s not really how you feel.

      • I really don’t know why you’re being so extreme on this or making the interpretations you are. I’m NOT defaulting to any particular position, regardless of what you say, nor am I assuming that “groupthink” dominates what happens in science. I’m, rather, countering some subjective opinions that you’ve stated more or less as facts here, including such things as “Science isn’t salesmanship-free…and we wouldn’t want it to be”. That’s just your opinion–it’s not any sort of empirical fact, nor do I in any way agree with it. In fact, I vehemently disagree with it.

        Nor am I disagreeing with everyone else, in fact I agree with Brian, Josh, Margaret and Arne on basic points. Nor do most of them agree with you on this, as is clear from their comments. Nor was I attempting to get into any discussion of peer review, even though this piece is generally on that topic!

      • Ok Jim, thanks for the clarification, I think we’re both misunderstanding each other.

        Re: my remark on salesmanship, I’ve gone back and reread that passage, and I think it’s clear enough that I’m expressing my own view (which is what I intended to do) rather than stating an empirical fact.

        Apologies for misunderstanding your comments. Afraid I’m still not sure how to further clarify my post and comments. If I think of something new to say or some different way of putting things, I’ll comment further.

      • No problem Jeremy, these discussions are always a two-way street and maybe I wasn’t as thorough as I needed to be to avoid misunderstanding of my full position. I don’t disagree with everything you said here, and I think in general you’re very good about elucidating the full range of considerations, pro and con, that exist on any given topic.

        The bottom line on the issue is that I agree with those that argue that 130+ authors serves no truly scientific purpose, but rather one I would call “psychological” for lack of a better term at the front of my mind.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Robert! And thank you for pointing out (which I neglected to do) that letters to Nature often are edited for brevity and that this can change their intended emphasis.

  11. Pingback: Ask us anything: how do you critique the published literature without looking like a jerk? | Dynamic Ecology

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