Does scientific controversy help or hurt scientific careers?

In the comments on a recent post, regular reader Artem Kaznatcheev asks an interesting question:

For instance, in the Nowak, Tarnita, & Wilson evolution of eusociality paper, was Tarnita negative[ly] affected by the controversy surrounding that paper (even though it seems like her contribution was the mostly in the SI, given her other work, and not in the actually controversial body of the paper)? In general, does controversy hurt or help (or neither, or more complicated) junior scientists?

Like I said, interesting question! Like most scientists, I’m interested in the sociology and anthropology of my own “tribe”. How different factors shape both individual careers and the direction of science as a whole. And of course, as someone who’s said some controversial things on this blog, and who cares about his own career, I have a keen personal interest in the answer!

My answer to the general question is basically “more complicated”. Which is another way of saying I don’t really have a coherent answer, just a bunch of tentative thoughts to get the conversation started:

  • I have no idea if or how the kerfuffle over Nowak et al. has affected Tarnita’s career, so I’m just going to focus on the general question rather than that specific case.
  • Anyone’s career trajectory depends on many factors, including blind luck. Luck is especially important early in one’s career. Plus, most scientists are never involved in major controversies. So I think it’s unusual for scientific controversies to have a detectably large effect (positive or negative) on anyone’s career. I don’t think that makes the question less interesting, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the question has to do with fairly unusual situations.
  • I think the answer to this question depends on how you define “helping or hurting one’s career.” If you define it narrowly as “materially affecting one’s chances of being hired, tenured, or promoted”, I suspect it’s quite rare for controversies to matter. Being involved in controversies could of course affect one’s career in more subtle ways, for instance by making you more (or less!) likely to be invited to give seminars or participate in symposia, or making you a bit more well-known so that you’re a bit more likely to be contacted by prospective graduate students, or etc.
  • I think the only controversies that have any chance of seriously affecting your career one way or the other are high-profile ones. Just writing, say, a technical comment critiquing a published paper creates a debate between you and the authors of the paper. But the debate ordinarily is short-lived and concerns some matter of fairly narrow interest, so doesn’t attract much attention and wouldn’t ordinarily affect anyone’s career. Again, I think things like the kerfuffle over Nowak et al. are exceptional.
  • If the controversy is high-profile, the effect on your career probably depends on what the controversy is about, and how it’s resolved. For instance, if the controversy is about whether your work is technically unsound, and the eventual resolution is “yes, it is”, that could hurt your career. The example of the Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed to have found “arsenic-based life”, comes to mind as a possible example here (though I emphasize that it’s only a tentative example as I haven’t followed that controversy, or Dr. Wolfe-Simon’s own career, in any detail). But if the controversy is about the technical soundness of someone else’s work, and you’re the one who first pointed out the flaws, and you convince the rest of the field that you’re right, I’d think that would help your career. Rosie Redfield’s role in the arsenic-based life controversy is a possible example (again, I suggest this only tentatively). Another possible example is the economics grad students who found really serious mistakes in an influential paper by two famous Harvard economists. I’d think that might help their careers a little.
  • If the controversy isn’t about technical soundness, but instead is about some big issue on which reasonable disagreement is possible, I think being a leading participant in the controversy would probably help your career on balance, by raising your profile. But in that case, what helps your career isn’t so much that you’re involved in a controversy, I don’t think. What helps your career is that you’re seen as making a major contribution on an important topic. Brian might have some thoughts on this, as he has a number of papers relating to the controversy over Hubbell’s neutral model, including his very first publication.
  • I think it’s pretty rare for scientists to seek out scientific controversy for its own sake. I mean, people often recognize when they’re taking a controversial stance. And occasionally people may try to “sell” their results by making them sound a bit more controversial than they really are. But I don’t know that anybody takes controversial stances because they’re controversial. Or if they do, they also take the stance because they believe in it. For instance, E. O. Wilson may have been indulging in a bit of deliberate bomb-tossing with his editorial on mathematics in science–but I’m sure he also believes what he wrote. I note that there are those who disagree, and think that there are scientists who take controversial stances purely in order to help their own careers. But the examples given in that piece are people like intelligent design advocates and climate change denialists. I suppose such people may be taking controversial stances purely to help their careers in some cases–but as far as I know I don’t think their careers are scientific careers (as opposed to careers in, say, political advocacy).
  • Avoiding controversial topics because they’re controversial is probably more common than seeking out controversy. Early in my postdoc, I vowed not to work on biodiversity-ecosystem research because at the time it seemed like a highly controversial topic, and I wasn’t convinced the controversy was going to lead to anything productive. Of course, I ended up changing my mind, because the controversy died down, and because I came up with some research ideas that seemed worth pursuing and that weren’t directly related to controversial matters. And there are topics I won’t blog about, because I don’t feel like dealing with the unproductive argument that probably would result. But in both cases, my concern wasn’t (or isn’t) any possible effect on my career, which I’m sure would’ve been (or would be) negligible. It’s just that, if I’m going to get into an argument, I want it to be an argument worth having. I love a good argument. But an unproductive argument is no fun and a waste of time for all concerned.
  • As far as I can recall, high-profile controversies in the history of ecology and evolution mostly have involved people who were already prominent, or who went on to become prominent. Perhaps in part because being prominent gives you some power to create a controversy where none would otherwise exist. And perhaps in part because, as I suggested above, being a leading participant in discussions of the key issues of the day probably helps your career on balance.
  • If over the course of your career you’re involved in numerous controversies, I suppose that might affect your career in some way. It could well affect other scientists’ perception of you, of course, without necessarily affecting your career. There are a few prominent ecologists and evolutionary biologists who have something of a reputation for being involved in controversies.
  • I can’t think of any example from ecology and evolution where someone’s career was seriously hurt due to their involvement in some controversy.

13 thoughts on “Does scientific controversy help or hurt scientific careers?

    • Yes, I see what you mean–if you’ve been hired at Princeton, your career presumably is going well by most measures! But Tarnita has an outstanding cv, the sort that will get you hired at Princeton whether or not you’ve been involved in a scientific controversy.

      Which brings up a point I perhaps should’ve made more explicitly in the post: it’s your entire body of work up to the present time that affects your future career. One-off events, on their own, don’t ordinarily have much positive or negative effect on your career (leaving aside obvious exceptions like “getting caught committing serious scientific misconduct”).

  1. I much agree that we don’t want to engage in unproductive arguments; they’re a waste of time and energy, and can be quite depressing IMO (e.g. many climate change “arguments”). Pedantic arguments as well–too many important issues out there in the world for those. We want discussion, not argument.

    Not quite an answer to your main question, but related, my view is that we should engage in controversies in direct relation to the perceived importance of the problem (which admittedly is a judgement call, and subjective, but so are many assessments we make in life, so so be it). If we see evidence of flawed science (often, stemming from methodological issues) that either (1) strongly affects some societally important issue, and/or (2) leads to generally or widespread mistaken conclusions in the science, then I think we’re faced with a moral decision, one that we should not back away from, +/- regardless of the perceived effects on one’s career. But some real wisdom is required at that point, w.r.t. just how to go about it, and it also doesn’t mean that personal circumstances might not override this principle at times–we are limited in what we can handle after all.

    If I’m wrong on something, I want somebody saying “I think you’re mistaken on this for reasons x, y and/or z”. If I’m wrong and obstinate about it, then I probably don’t want that, because my ego’s probably wrapped up in it, but for the sake of the validity of the science, somebody needs to anyway. We need to be considerate, but we also need to be clear that ideas we put forth are fair game for being challenged in public if need be. Some of the nasty stuff currently ongoing in climate science is due to certain scientists being hyper-reactive to legitimate challenges of their work (and not recognizing it).

    • You’re right that you need to pick your battles. There’s always an opportunity cost to spending your time doing something rather than something else, so you don’t want to engage in a controversy that’s not worth engaging in.

      And of course there are all sorts of other considerations. As you say, whether or not the controversy is important is a big one. Also whether it’s seen by others to be important. Whether you think the controversy is likely to change any minds (e.g., if it’s a debate between two opposing, closeminded camps, perhaps best to steer clear, unless the debate is in some way unavoidable). Etc.

      Blogging actually changes the calculus here to some extent, because a blog post requires less time than writing a comment to a peer-reviewed journal. Of course, the potential downside of critical or controversial blog posts not requiring much time to write is that you can be tempted to write them even when doing so isn’t a good idea on other grounds.

      As you say, choosing whether to engage in or avoid a controversy is always a judgment call. For instance, Brian has a post in prep responding to a rather polemical article on different approaches to ecology. I had considered writing a post myself but decided it wasn’t worth it–I didn’t think the article in question was good enough to merit comment. As will be clear from his post, Brian doesn’t think the article is very good either–but he decided it was worth posting on, because he gave more weight to other considerations than I did.

  2. Unless you’re obviously and famously wrong, it should be a help, I imagine. Even if you’re on the wrong side, if you behave well and are open to ideas, then you’re more well known and you’ll be favored in the opinions of others.

  3. Thanks for the hoist!

    A prominent controversy from physics was the faster-than-light neutrino anomaly, it was an example of scientists doing science exactly right, discussing a difficult result in the open, and then having their careers directly damaged because of public misunderstanding. When the OPERA scientists first released their results, they went into great detail explaining that “we looked at all possible sources of error, and did careful calculations, but could not account for this mistake. Can you guys help us find where the systematic error is coming from?” Nobody on the team claimed to have made a ground breaking discovery or “overturn Einstein”, because everybody realized it must be some subtle error that we don’t know how to account for. However, the popular media is not capable of understanding such subtleties, or the difficulty of modern physics experiments and touted this as “scientists overturn Einstein” and similar baseless sensetionalism. When scientists finally figured out what (very non trivial) error had to be accounted for, the media of course reported: “charlatans are wrong! Long live Einstein!”.

    In the end, even though the group spokesperson Antonio Ereditato and physics coordinator Dario Autiero were model scientists, doing great and extremely careful science; the public’s lack of understanding and subsequent ‘controversy’ forced them to resign (hurting their careers).

    I think this is the prototypical worst-case scenario that an average scientists considering speaking out on a potentially controversial topic fears most. Even though you are careful and cross all your Ts and dot all your Is, people won’t bother to read your science and just blame you for a failed exploration that was perfectly scientific.

  4. Jeremy you mentioned that my first paper was a critique of Neutral Theory and asked about that experience. It was certainly wading into a controversial topic but I don’t think I was taking a controversial position. 90% of ecologists were rooting for someone to do what I did.

    I just happened to stumble into it. As a former computer programmer, I found it rather easy to recreate Hubbell’s simulations and just sort of puttered away at it as a way to understand things. And then lo and behold I found the things I found.

    As I say 90% of the world was rooting for me so I don’t know how general my experience is. But I would say:
    1) On the whole this undoubtedly helped my career. Stupid and random as it is, we all know that a paper in Nature at that career stage is a huge shot in the arm. And by being the first it quickly give me a piece of territory on an important topic as witnessed by various invited follow on papers, seminar talks, etc.
    2) For a loooong time I was labelled as being all about neutral theory which I found annoying. I pretty much said everything I had to say on the topic in my first paper. And even by the time I was a postdoc I would have said it was only my 3rd or 4th most important paper (or certainly 3rd or 4th favorite paper if you think individuals can’t judge the importance of their own papers which is probably true). I personally thought what I said was rather obvious. Yet the only thing I ever got invited to review, all people wanted to hear about when I was a seminar speaker, etc was neutral theory for a good two years afterwards. I suspect this generalizes that people will be best known for the controversial thing they did. Annoying, but not particularly harmful.
    3) As for that 10% rooting against me. Well I don’t think Hubbell every forgave me. He used to go around calling me “some graduate student” as in “there’s some paper by a graduate student” as if he didn’t remember my name and anything by a graduate student didn’t count. I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure this came back to haunt me oIn a couple of anonymous reviews and grants, but then odds are I would have been rejected anyway – it didn’t tip the odds very much (and again on the whole much less than the positive benefits in the other direction). But for the remainder of the 10% – I stuck to facts, treated them with respect and pretty much got the same back. Made good friends with some of them and I think at least on mutual respect with the rest of them.
    So yeah – I don’t know how much of a special case this was because I was on the “right” (i.e. popular) side of the controversy. Although in this particular case several careers got made by people on the unpopular side too so I’m not sure that was important. But, while it was an interesting ride with undoubted negative turns, it was on the whole a massive (and purely lucky) positive for my career. Of course if I had started out choosing a controversial topic for careerist reasons I think it would have turned out differently. Part of the reason I came out fairly unscathed was it was just another piece of science for me if that makes sense.

    • Thanks for this Brian, this is very interesting.

      Re: speaking for the “silent majority”, good point. Probably a fair number of scientific controversies consist of a vocal but small minority vs. a larger (and often more established) majority view. As you say, you’re not risking much in practice if you wade in on the side of the majority.

      And even if you’re in a minority, I do think that if you’re part of a critical mass of like-minded people, that gives you some intellectual cover and probably some buffer against really negative effects on your career. Just because it means you’re part of a legitimate school of thought, not some lone crank.

      From the sound of it, you were at least sort of aware in advance that you were on the side of the majority? I wonder if sometimes it’s harder to tell. I was having a conversation with a colleague recently who has some potentially-controversial views on which I’m trying to get him to do a guest post. I say “potentially” controversial because there are hints that *lots* of people actually agree with him but for various reasons nobody’s ever really said so in print. So this might turn out to be another case where what seems like a controversial view actually turns out not to be.

      That folks on both sides of the neutrality debate made their names that way and have gone on to successful careers nicely illustrates my suggestion that what matters for careers is being engaged in the big issues of the day, whether or not those issues are controversial.

      Pretty disappointing that Steve Hubbell, or anyone, would dismiss some work out of hand on the grounds that it was written by a grad student or a nobody or whatever. Proof by authority *really* bugs me. And to refer to you as “some grad student” rather than by name…yeesh.

      I know what you mean about getting “typecast” as working on a certain problem or using a certain approach or whatever. For a few years there, I’m pretty sure in many people’s minds I was “the Price equation guy”, as if that was the only idea I had. Now for many people I’m “the blogging guy”, as if I’ve given up doing science! (in fact, I’m not doing any less science than I did before I started blogging) As you say, our work always looks different to others than it does to us.

      I really like what you say about “it was just another piece of science for me”. That makes total sense.

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