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.