Scientists disagree with one another, about all sorts of things. Always have, always will. Because of that, discussion and debate are part of science. Which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s fine. Scientists are hardly ever obliged to engage in discussion or debate. You can go your whole career in science without ever giving or receiving much criticism of scientific work outside the contexts of anonymous peer review and trainee advising.
But one thing I hate to see is people—especially junior people—avoiding discussion and debate for the wrong reasons. In particular, the fear that you’re putting your career at risk, at least in some small way, if you publicly disagree with a bigwig about science. Whether in face-to-face conversation, or on Twitter, or on a blog, or in a paper, or whatever.
I can appreciate where this fear might come from. Even though I’ve never shared it myself.* I have no idea how common this fear is (beyond “it exists”), or how important it is relative to the many other reasons for avoiding scientific debate. But understandable as it is, and whether it’s common or rare, it’s a shame that it exists at all. So if you ever hesitate to disagree with Dr. Famous because you’re afraid it might hurt your career, here’s why you shouldn’t worry:
1) Dr. Famous probably likes to discuss and debate science (or at least doesn’t mind it), and probably likes junior people who are willing to do so. This point is specific to things like face-to-face conversations and exchanges of comments on a blog. Most senior ecologists love to meet and interact with students who are confident enough in their scientific views to express them and defend them (while also being fair-minded and willing to listen to counter-arguments, of course). As opposed to students who just want to listen passively to whatever the senior person has to say. Senior ecologists love digging into complex scientific arguments with anyone who shares their interest in the same topics, if not their views on those topics. Many examples could be given illustrating this point. There were a number of times as a grad student and postdoc when I got into one-on-one discussions and debates with senior ecologists. They were always good natured. Later, as a pre-tenure faculty member who’d recently started blogging, I wrote a critical post about null models in ecology. I was fairly worried what Nick Gotelli would think of the post, since it mentioned him by name and could be read as criticizing his work. I needn’t have worried; he actually liked the post. Or think of the popularity of the formal debates at the ASN meetings, and how the debaters themselves volunteered to do it because they like discussing science and being pushed to think hard about it. Another example: a while back we published a guest post from two senior ecologists criticizing what were in their view some “zombie ideas” in tropical biology. The post got thoughtful pushback from a graduate student, Carina Baskett. She indicated that she commented with trepidation, concerned that a blog post by a couple of senior ecologists on a popular blog would seriously damage her career prospects. But to her great credit, she commented anyway, and the resulting conversation involving her and several senior ecologists was one of our best threads, with the senior ecologists involved encouraging the conversation to continue (e.g. here, here, here). (UPDATE: please see the comments, where Carina clarifies the source of her trepidation; my summary here isn’t the best.)
2) Dr. Famous is used to scientific disagreements. After all, they’re a normal part of science, and Dr. Famous has been a scientist for a long time. You’re far from the first person ever to disagree with Dr. Famous about science.
3) If you disagree with Dr. Famous, lots of other people surely do too. For instance, Brian’s very first paper as a grad student was a Nature paper debunking a then-prominent line of evidence Steve Hubbell’s neutral theory of community ecology. Which might seem risky, because Steve Hubbell is (deservedly) famous and influential. But as Brian noted, Steve Hubbell’s just one person, and there were plenty of other people, including famous people, who disagreed with Steve Hubbell on the evidence for neutral theory. So Brian was far from alone. Plus, even if your views place you in a very small minority, as long as you have cogent reasons for holding them they’re not going to hurt your career just because they’re minority views.
4) Participating in key debates in the field—debates in which Dr. Famouses generally participate too—helps your career. This point applies specifically to engaging in scientific debates by publishing papers, organizing symposia, participating in working groups, etc. I have an old post on this, but the short version is that addressing important scientific questions is good for your career (#newsflash!). Since there’s often debate and disagreement about the answers to important questions, and since famous people often are famous precisely because they raised those questions and identified possible answers, working on important questions might well mean publicly disagreeing with a Dr. Famous at some point. To which, so what? Don’t think of it as disagreeing with Dr. Famous, think of it as doing important science. Conversely, you know what will hurt your career? Passing up opportunities to do important science out of misplaced fear of upsetting Dr. Famous. Brian’s first paper, mentioned above, is a great example. Another is the TREE paper that Carina Baskett and some of her colleagues recently published, on how to move forward on controversies over “zombie ideas” in tropical biology. A paper that I’m sure grew in part out of Carina’s exchanges with senior ecologists in the comments here. (UPDATE: I shouldn’t have been so sure; see Carina’s comment.) (Aside: you shouldn’t seek to participate in key debates as a purely careerist move, of course. “Find a high-profile scientific debate and figure out a way to publish a paper on it” is just bandwagon-chasing. And not all high-profile scientific debates necessarily lead to good science; some are just pointless arguments.)
5) Dr. Famous has no desire to hurt your career. Even in the unlikely event Dr. Famous is annoyed to get pushback from you, Dr. Famous has no desire to hurt your career over it. Dr. Famous does not keep an enemies list. Even if Dr. Famous is annoyed with you, well, that’s still a long way from wanting to hurt your career, or even being unconsciously biased against you. Like most people, I have a few people in my field whom I personally dislike, to various degrees and for various reasons (and the feeling’s probably mutual). I express that dislike by avoiding them at conferences and online (again, it’s probably mutual). Not by seeking out or seizing upon opportunities to hurt their careers. Plus, I don’t personally dislike any of the people I dislike because of scientific disagreements with them. I doubt I’m unusual in any of this. Again, scientific disagreements are normal, and nobody responds to them by trying to screw anybody’s career.
6) Dr. Famous lacks the power to hurt your career. There’s an important distinction to be drawn here. There are a few people more senior than you who have a lot of formal power to affect your career. Your supervisor and committee members, if you’re a grad student. Your department head or chair, if you’re a pre-tenure faculty member. Your references. In contrast, someone without formal power over you has basically zero ability to affect your career, no matter how senior and famous he or she is. This is true even if you and Dr. Famous work on the same topic. Example: Brian’s first paper, noted above, critiquing a key line of evidence for Steve Hubbell’s neutral theory. As Brian notes, Steve Hubbell seems to have been annoyed with him. It’s possible this contributed to a negative review or two on Brian’s various grant applications; who knows? But Brian’s career has gone just fine anyway. Not because Brian was so lucky and/or awesome as to be able to overcome this huge career obstacle (though Brian is awesome, of course 🙂 ). But because no one ecologist’s opinion of you, and no one review of any one paper or grant, makes a dime’s worth of difference to your career trajectory, even early in your career. Most grants get rejected anyway. So do most papers submitted to selective journals (which mostly later get published in some other journal, often another selective one). Plus, even if you work on the exact same stuff as Dr. Famous, Dr. Famous isn’t likely to be asked to review more than a modest fraction of your papers and grants. Further, there’s a big difference between a fair negative review and an unfair one; it’s only the latter that can be said to hurt your career. Even in the very unlikely event that Dr. Famous gives you an unfair negative review, the scientific evaluation ecosystem has lots of safeguards to ensure the fairness of the publication and funding decisions supported by reviews.
By the way, I say all this as someone who’s faced explicit threats that my career would be killed by senior ecologists. In response to a reader feedback survey we did a few years ago, we got a lengthy anonymous comment, aimed at me, from someone who hated both the blog and me. This individual claimed that a number of senior ecologists also hated the blog and me, and that once word got out about how they felt my career would be over. Here’s how I reacted:
I wasn’t laughing because someone hated the blog, or me (sadly, that’s inevitable). And I didn’t laugh because I disbelieved the claim; possibly, there are a few senior ecologists who hate me (though I’m sure that if they’re out there, they’re outnumbered by the ones who like me or have no opinion of me). Rather, I laughed at the idea that my career would be ruined, or even damaged in any detectable way, if some random senior ecologists hated me. And although this happened shortly after I got tenure, I’d have laughed even if I’d been pre-tenure. This doesn’t make me naive or brave. It just means I know how academia works.
7) What hurts your career isn’t disagreeing with someone, even someone famous. It’s disagreeing badly. If you’re rude, or personally attack people, or you manipulate evidence, or you insist on continuing to argue long after it should’ve been clear that you were in the wrong, yeah, that’ll reflect badly on you and might hurt your career. Depending on exactly what you did and on lots of other factors, of course. In general, you probably need to behave pretty badly to a pretty large number of people to harm your career in any meaningful way.
p.s. It’s quite possible that this post is misdirected, in that career-based anxiety about disagreeing with Dr. Famous might often be just a symptom of some deeper or broader-based anxiety. In which case you should be reading this post by Meg on life as an anxious scientist. In particular, remember that 95% of what worries you will never come to pass.
*”What a surprise, I never would’ve guessed that you’ve always been fearless about sharing your opinions!” Said no one ever. 🙂