Don’t be afraid to disagree publicly with Dr. Famous; it won’t hurt your career (UPDATED)

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:

363l9q

(source)

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.🙂

34 thoughts on “Don’t be afraid to disagree publicly with Dr. Famous; it won’t hurt your career (UPDATED)

  1. I gotta say, for the pre-tenure faculty member, be just a /little/ cautious about this. Having gotten a referee’s letter back that was essentially a point-by-point rebuttal of my last paper*, I can say that sometimes, yes, Dr. Famous /is/ in the position to hurt your career. (*) yes, I know I shouldn’t know that, but our P&T office committed the faux-pas of quoting a huge chunk of the referee’s letter, verbatim, in their decision letter.

    • Very sorry to hear this. This is about the worst case scenario, I think. Do you mind if I ask what the outcome of the P&T decision was? I hope that it was positive despite that letter.

      • It looks like things are going to come out ok, but it cost me a year.

        In another SNAFU that ended up being a blessing in disguise, it turned out to not actually be my year for tenure review, the year that the committee solicited and received the negative letter. I managed to get that whole process scrapped and tried again, with what appear to be much more promising results.

        Seriously – I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to!

      • I suppose I should also say, regardless of the outcome of the whole thing, I wouldn’t have done or written anything different.

        It’s not that I’m particularly fearless, but someone has got to be willing to say “the emperor has no clothes”, and I don’t believe I’m living up to my responsibilities to my science, or to my peers, if I avoid such topics simply for personal comfort.

      • Thanks you for sharing this. Very glad to hear that things worked out in the end and that you wouldn’t have done anything differently. While also being dismayed to hear that your uni’s procedures were part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. In a well-functioning T&P proceeding, an obviously-inappropriate letter like the one you describe should be ignored or heavily discounted.

  2. I agree. Being argumentative has likely done me more good than harm (even when I was just starting in science).

    Its worth noting that, in our globalized science community, we may need to be sensitive that not everyone shares the values of an argumentative Western European (or North American). There are cultural norms against contradicting elders and seniors in much of the world. Scientists from those regions can feel constrained by these norms and the potential disapproval of their peers. I think this is changing, but for now it is another reason why some don’t readily state their disagreement with Dr Famous.

    • ” There are cultural norms against contradicting elders and seniors in much of the world. Scientists from those regions can feel constrained by these norms and the potential disapproval of their peers.”

      Good point.

  3. Hmm, I agree with this advice if we were living in a world of people who always say and do the right thing. But there are Trumps in the world and some of them are in science. They DO keep enemies lists and they don’t like to be challenged on their ideas, especially by those more junior to them, including graduate students. Wasn’t there just a post here about bullies in academia?I’m not saying that one should allow bullies to persist unchallenged, but there’s often a price to pay for challenging them. Bravo to you if you stand up to one, but you do so with some risk. The senior scientists you mention here are good people and kudos to them for being willing to participate in a debate that’s part of the scientific process, but beware of the bad eggs. They have an inordinate influence and can be tough to take on by one’s self.

  4. I think this post rankled me a bit because it’s written from a place of privilege as a white male (as am I). It’s important to point out that women and minorities (and please chime in or correct me if I’m wrong) may not feel the same freedom to speak out against Dr. Famous (who is overwhelmingly more likely to be a while male).

    • Fair enough. All I can say is that I’m aware of this, and did my best to write the post using examples other than my own, or those of other white guys. Carina Baskett’s participation in comments here, for instance. And the ASN debate, in which Susan Harrison participated.

      I look forward to hearing from other commenters as to how they deal with this. How do you decide which interactions to engage in?

      • Jeremy, based on your general writings on this blog you come across as a thoughtful ally. As a female postdoc on the job market, I had the same reaction to this post as Casey and aboyle7. Given the blatant examples of implicit bias or discrimination that were shared recently on the ecology/evolution jobs wiki, and general awareness of implicit bias (and everything that has been going on with the US presidential election), I worry about providing people with excuses to criticize me as a scientist. This is part of the reason I sometimes comment anonymously on blogs.

        Re. deciding which interactions to engage in, I am more likely to do so if I already know the person, if I am very sure of my argument, or if the person’s demeanor suggests they are safe to engage in debate with.

        Jobs wiki: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1rOjzt71IBfaz5gYuiVyJxzoCAD8WqM39eUjUhgBEFuU/edit?pref=2&pli=1#gid=1361129399. See “Ratio of genders hired” in the General Discussion sheet.

      • Thank you for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it. I have some tentative further thoughts but want to think further before saying more beyond what I said to the previous commenters.

        Re: deciding what interactions to engage in, that all sounds sensible to me, thank you for sharing. Would this also extend to things like what research to pursue? Would you avoid working on a topic if you didn’t know that the leading senior men working on the topic were safe to engage with (or say you had reason to think they weren’t safe to engage with)? Honest question. I myself once consciously avoided working on a particular research area (biodiversity-ecosystem function) early in my postdoc days for reasons independent of strictly scientific considerations. In my case, not because I was worried about upsetting bigwigs who might retaliate, though, but because I thought the topic was too controversial in a way that would make it difficult to do good useful science. I just didn’t want the hassle. But then later I changed my mind when I came up with what I thought was a good research idea that was independent of the issues on which controversy was most intense.

        Re: ratio of genders hired on the jobs wiki, I had a look. I would be very interested to see a more systematic compilation of that sort of data for, say, last year’s wiki (since those searches are all over). Of course, it’d be a lot of work for someone to chase down the results of 100+ searches. I vaguely recall a while back that some blog (at Science?) was going to systematically track the outcome of every search in a few select fields for an entire year, and one of the fields was ecology. I think we linked to it in an old linkfest. But it was a while ago and my memory is vague, can’t find it now.

      • “Re: deciding what interactions to engage in, that all sounds sensible to me, thank you for sharing. Would this also extend to things like what research to pursue?”
        Fortunately this hasn’t been something I have to worry about yet. My research interests happen to be in areas with pretty nice people.

  5. Although I fully agree that, in general, actively participating in scientific debates and being vocal about your opinions will benefit your scientific career, there are definitely some Dr. Famouses out there (a minority) that do not appreciate being challenged by junior people and, when they are, do hold it against them (and this could potentially affect your career in non-trivial ways). I think that junior people should actively and publicly engage in scientific debates and not be scared to disagree with Dr. Famouses BUT should be extremely careful on how they do it (i.e., making the critique very specific, adding some positive points to emphasize that you are not implying that Dr. Famous’ research is all bad and acknowledging that you could be wrong).
    I think you underscore the importance of point 7) since people will greatly vary in what they consider to be rude, what they consider to be clearly wrong (zombie ideas!), etc. Perhaps junior people tend to worry too much about this already but, I know that, personally, I have to work on disagreeing with people in a more gentle and positive way. And, I suspect that implicit biases related to gender, race, etc. might come into play here too.

    • All good points. I hope I won’t be read as suggesting that everybody should be argumentative or toss around rhetoric like “zombie ideas”! Conducting yourself professionally in whatever debates you engage in doesn’t guarantee that nobody will ever get annoyed with you, of course. (example: Brian’s Nature paper was perfectly professional, and yet still seems to have annoyed Steve Hubbell). But hopefully it does minimize the likelihood that whoever you’re disagreeing with will get annoyed. And hopefully others observing the disagreement will appreciate the professionalism with which you conducted yourself.

  6. This works oh so well for all the young white men. The big wigs just LOVE having their ideas challenged by the next “rising stars”. But when the stars don’t align because of gender, race, etc, then you MUST be more cautious.

    • Fair comment. Much of this post does indeed come from my own experience, and the experience of other guys. I did my best to include other experiences that I was aware of and was in a position to share, such as Carina Baskett’s. And I made note of a case in which a senior white guy (Steve Hubbell) did not appreciate being challenged by a junior person (Brian), even though the junior person was a white guy. All of these anecdotes are of course just that, anecdotes. I look forward to learning from others’ experiences.

      Yes, absolutely, as a white guy I can probably expect to get away with, or even benefit from, a greater range of behaviors than could someone of a different race or gender. I’m sure that, throughout my career, I’ve worried less about the tone I adopt, and adopted a more aggressive tone more often, than would be advisable for someone who wasn’t a white guy. Unfortunately, point #7 in the post probably is something people who aren’t white guys have to worry about more.

    • “This works oh so well for all the young white men.”

      I think that’s a huge over-simplification: your later “etc.” includes (amongst other things) sexuality, class and nationality, all of which can apply to some of “the young white men”. Race and gender are just two axes of potential bias/discrimination (though I accept that they can be the most significant).

      As other commentators have noted, Jeremy’s advice (whilst broadly correct) needs to be taken with a degree of caution, because context and situation (knowing when and where to start a disagreement) are both important.

      Jeremy asked for others’ experiences. Speaking as a white, heterosexual male from a poor, northern English, work class background, who didn’t attend the top universities in Britain, I’ve occasionally felt looked-down upon by senior researchers with more middle class accents, backgrounds, and university trajectories. But I have no evidence, nor reason to believe, that any disagreements with “Dr Famous” have had a negative effect on my career. And there have been quite a number of disagreements: like Jeremy, I can be argumentative and unafraid to make a point when I think a point needs to be made, either in print or at a conference. That has occasionally led to some ugly scenes, such as being publicly called a liar at a Royal Society Discussion Meeting by a Dr Famous with whom I’ve disagreed on numerous occasions, and who had misheard my response to a point he was trying to score. But I don’t think it’s hurt my career, just my feelings (sometimes).

      No one so far has commented from the reverse perspective – what does Dr Famous think of all of this? I’d certainly not describe myself in that way, but as a senior researcher with a profile in my field who interacts with early career researchers at conferences, when reviewing manuscripts, via email, on blogs, etc., I would say this: don’t be afraid to disagree with me – I have no power to hurt your career (as Jeremy emphasises). If I have recommended rejection of your manuscript it’s because I found what I perceive as significant faults with it, not because you disagreed with me (and you’ll know it was me because I sign my reviews). But manuscript rejection is a fact of life for all scientists, and hopefully any feedback I provide will be useful for revising the work.

      • “what does Dr Famous think of all of this? I’d certainly not describe myself in that way,”

        I suspect this is in the eye of the beholder to some extent. I wouldn’t call you a Dr. Famous. I wouldn’t call me one either. But in the eyes of at least some students, I’m sure we both are.

      • That’s a good point that perhaps gets to part of the crux of this discussion: “Dr Famous” is really often “Dr Published Some High Profile Papers and Has Made a Name For Themselves That No One Outside a Narrow Discipline Gives a Shit About”

        Perspective is everything.

  7. I agree with your point that aspiring scientists need to be bold and not to hide themselves in conferences, seminars etc. The benefits you listed are true. However, I think that newbies need to balance boldness with caution, and they need to take into account their surrounding culture. For instance, in Latin-American cultures, some silverbacks hate to be challenged, and they know to hold a grudge. Their favorite sport is to humiliate and boycott students who do not fall in line.

    • “However, I think that newbies need to balance boldness with caution, and they need to take into account their surrounding culture. For instance, in Latin-American cultures, some silverbacks hate to be challenged, and they know to hold a grudge. ”

      Yes, good point. I’m speaking from a North American point of view in the post and in retrospect should have said so in the post.

      Anecdotally, your point doesn’t just apply to Latin America. In Spain and Italy, for instance, I’m given to understand that obtaining an academic position is very much a matter of personal patronage. Those in charge often hire people they know and like, regardless of merit. Assuming that’s true, my advice would not apply in that sort of context.

      • Yes, unfortunately, Academia is too personal in Latin cultures. It doesn’t mean that you get a job only by patronage, but patronage plays a large role in many hiring committees, especially in smaller or peripheral universities. Anyway, despite those cultural differences, scientists need to be bold. Period. The difference among cultures is not to be or not to be bold: it’s only the level of risk.

  8. I think one of the important points is, disagreement is fine, being rude is not (as others have said). We can all find examples of “Dr Famous” that did hold a grudge but realistically “Dr Famous” will have been critised thoughout their career (viva, peer review etc) and by now should be able to take a little creative criticism. The worst type are “Dr don’t you know who I am?” They generally studied at the same time as “Dr Famous” but never became Famous, normally because they are argumentative sometimes thay are entitled. Generally they think Dr Famous isn’t all he/she is cracked up to be, and “they got all the chances etc” they will try and ruin your career but luckly their zone of influence is rather small.

    • That’s a very good point. In my opinion, “Dr don’t you know who I am?” is the most dangerous type that needs to be avoided by newbies, and it is especially vicious in peripheral universities and countries.

  9. A few years ago I would have accepted the ideas in this post without too much question, now I feel quite different about it due to direct experience. In my case Dr Famous and I are in the same Department. Crucially that DrF (fully tenured and senior) can have can have power over my career progression (me: not tenured and junior). I actually feel bullied by this person but feel there is little I can do. I’m pretty sure this would be seen as ‘just another academic debate’ if I raised this with senior management, when in fact I don’t experience it in that way due to the power differential. So it’s not so black and white (or rather rosy), as this post portrays.

    • “Crucially that DrF (fully tenured and senior) can have can have power over my career progression (me: not tenured and junior).”

      As I said in the post, yes, people who have formal power over you are a different case.

  10. A tentative thought, pushback welcome. Is it possibly the case that disagreeing with Dr. Famous is a very low risk to your career on average, but that the risk is higher (though still low in an absolute sense) for people who aren’t white men? Or that disagreeing with Dr. Famous is on average slightly beneficial to your career for white men, and slightly risky for others?

    • As a white guy who has experienced a fair amount of negative consequences, I can say with certainty that disagreeing with Dr. F. isn’t universally a benefit for our demographic, but I can’t say what the average trends are.

      I do have to wonder though, what proportion of the benefits/risks are real benefits and risks, attributable to the transgressor’s demographic characteristics, what proportion are (perhaps incorrectly) perceived benefits and risks due to the transgressor’s cultural expectations, and what proportion are possibly the result of behavior in the face of cultural expectations, _creating_ the benefits or risks as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  11. Well this was an interesting surprise that that this 2-year-old conversation was featured again! Also a little shocking that I still haven’t published some cool data on the topic😉 time to stop collecting data and start writing! Anyway, a couple corrections from my point of view.

    “A paper that I’m sure grew in part out of Carina’s exchanges with senior ecologists in the comments here.”
    I don’t think the TREE paper was inspired by Dynamic Ecology. I think Daniel Anstett, the lead author, was inspired by a seminar involving the other authors, Krystal Nunes and Peter Kotanen. I joined the paper after Daniel and I met at ESA and realized we had similar interests in the subject. It was more focused on herbivory than the exchanges on Dynamic Ecology.

    “She indicated that she commented with trepidation”
    I wasn’t afraid to comment; what I said was “As a young scientist, I read this with great trepidation.” My meta-complaint, unrelated to the actual science, was that using a widely-read platform to call something a zombie idea with very little evidence could bias readers against that idea in real life. I don’t feel like opening that can of worms again, there’s a lot of discussion on the original posts and here http://pleiotropy.fieldofscience.com/2014/05/not-dead-yet-when-do-we-give-up-on-idea.html and here https://smallpondscience.com/2014/05/16/recommended-reads-27/

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