Mind Your Manners

We need to treat each other with respect, or all of science will suffer.

Being dismissive and emotional during public discussions makes you look bad to other people and erodes your credibility.

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the loss of courtesy in modern society. By many criteria, it seems that people in general have lost a degree of politeness. Reading some of the online comments after several recent articles in The Scientist would seem to indicate that biologists have also lost their manners.

I’m thinking, in particular, of some personal attacks posted in response to Les Costello’s article in the September issue arguing that the National Institutes of Health are biased against senior scientists, since they give funding preferences to young investigators. Some of these readers commented on Costello’s recent grants, noting that he hadn’t submitted a competitive application within a...

This lack of basic manners alarms me not only because of the obvious danger to our sense of community, but also because this type of behavior could damage society’s positive perception of scientists.

Psychologists have suggested that when a group becomes stressed, it tends to lose the manners that serve to maintain normal relationships between its members. Biologists as a group are certainly under a lot of stress recently because of increased competition for funding, publications, and jobs. However, it is essential that we maintain respect for each other in our public discourse. Respecting each other is essential for real scientific dialog. If you dismiss someone’s opinion based on your feelings, you lose your objectivity. But being dismissive and emotional during public discussions also makes you look bad to other people and erodes your credibility.

Ideally, a scientist should be a dispassionate observer of the world who weighs the evidence and provides a thoughtful, well-reasoned judgment. This is clearly an idealistic vision of our profession to which we frequently fall short, mostly because scientists find it difficult to be dispassionate about anything. Yet, we should strive for this ideal if we expect that scientific opinions should be given special consideration in society.

This is important because we want people to believe in the data gathered and evaluated using the scientific method. If people aren’t confident in the people who are gathering the data, they won’t believe in its veracity. The jury’s negative opinion of the reliability of the DNA evidence gathered in the O.J. Simpson case is a glaring example of this truism.

I discovered the value of remaining objective recently when I was invited to give a lecture on the human genome project at a local church. I thought this would be a good opportunity to educate the public on why gene-sequencing data supports the theory of evolution. For most of my lecture, the audience seemed quite taken by the beauty of the common genetic ancestry of life. Predictably, halfway through my talk, a creationist started protesting that evolution was a lie. I maintained my calm and simply disagreed with him, stating that the facts of the matter did not support his claim. The more I remained calm, the more agitated he became. Finally, members of the audience asked him to leave “because they were interested in learning something.” He stalked out of the room in a frustrated huff. In this case, my dispassion bolstered my credibility.

I don’t think that my experience is unusual. Most people can tell the difference between reasonable assertions and unsupported conjecture. The problem is that when emotional outbursts are injected into a situation, any pretense of objectivity becomes lost.

In these times where science offers the best hope for progress in an increasing complex and fractious world, it would be a real tragedy if the bad behavior of some scientists compromised our reputation as neutral seekers of truth. Whether we like it or not, the behavior of each of us colors the popular perception of scientists as a whole.

Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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