Sunday, January 31, 2010

Do Scientists Need Better Manners?

Thanks to biochem belle for pointing out an article in The Scientist called "Mind Your Manners" by Steven Wiley. My previous post basically made a similar point regarding how disrespectful behavior on the part of some scientists (in public debates, on blogs, etc.) ultimately colors the perception of the public's view of us.  It's one thing to be passionate about your ideas and opinions and quite another to express that passion in a negative diatribe against someone else with a different opinion.

I find it quite interesting that others are becoming concerned about exchanges among scientists that are increasingly disrespectful.  My post "Rude Scientists" was basically about science communication and the public's perception of scientists, but it occurred to me while preparing it that how we treat each other could influence how we are perceived as a group by the public.  I had not seen the article by Wiley in The Scientist, but we make similar points, albeit in different ways.

If you read the responses to Wiley's essay, you will see that quite a few respondents don't "get it".  A few agree and express similar concern.  One respondent to Wiley's article lays the blame on blogs.  There may be something to that, although I wonder if it's more related to the anonymous nature of blogging that brings out the lack of manners?  Perhaps this behavior is like road rage.  People who are totally polite and mild-mannered in person turn into The Hulk on the highway.  I've always believed that road rage was partly due to the (somewhat) anonymity of the driver, partly to the stress involved in driving, and partly the lack of face-to-face interaction that holds most people in check.

Wiley also makes an important point about maintaining your composure when attacked.  If you remain calm and respectful toward your attacker, you will almost always win the respect of the audience--as well as the argument. I described some clear guidelines for dealing with verbal attacks in previous posts: "Sticks and Stones...", "Verbal Self-Defense", and "How to Counter a Verbal Attack".  I agree with Wiley that going over the line (e.g., into an irrational screaming match) only shows you to be immature and out-of-control.

So I don't think blogs are to blame for the rude behavior that seems to be emerging in science exchanges on blogs and elsewhere.  Blogs have just given those with little self-control a ready outlet for their frustrations.

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