Thursday, September 29, 2016

Self-Appointed Destructive Critic

by @bahniks - click on image for a larger view

By now, those of you familiar with the “methodological terrorism” controversy (PDF) are probably sick of  it. I won't go into any detail, other than to say that disagreements between the communities of (1) traditional psychologists who respect the current peer review process, and (2) reformers who advocate replication, post-publication peer review in social media, and alternate modes of dissemination, have been heated. In a nutshell, are the new media bad for science or good for science?

Here, I'd like to examine some ideas in isolation from their source(s). This is to avoid the appearance of an ad hominem attack and to maintain a civil tone. Ultimately, we may learn that abusive argumentation and incivility are less common than expected. Or not well-defined, at least.

Ad Hominem (Abusive) Argument.

“Attacking the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself, when the attack on the person is completely irrelevant to the argument the person is making.”

Does this really happen all that often?1 Does questioning someone's motives for maintaining the status quo constitute an ad hominem attack? If a researcher receives widespread media attention for their findings, can we find fault with their public statements, or is this ad hominem too? Off-the-cuff remarks on Twitter are the most likely place for attacks that meet the “abusive argument” definition. We should avoid it, or else it supports the trash-talk allegations.


What is the appropriate tone for online debate? Who decides? Adults have criticized the language and attitudes of youth since the beginning of time. One person's funny irreverent witticism is another's destructo-criticism.

I know I've been misunderstood. A lighthearted spoof with a bold red disclaimer (and advance apologies) was interpreted as sneering, ridiculing, and bullying (of a very senior figure). Another post, Spanner or Sex Object?, wasn't meant as methodological fetishism (so to speak). Some might say the images were objectionable, but they were included along with substantive critiques of the findings and their interpretation, not of the authors.

In the the wider world of the internet, there's no doubt that the level of hostility, trollish behavior, abusive threats, racism, and sexism have risen dramatically (just ask Leslie Jones about her Twitter experience). Let's hope that we can monitor our behavior and filter out mean spirited, personal attacks.

Peer review is more civil.

Like many others, I've suffered from the tone of anonymous peer review at journals.  My very first review as a graduate student was one paragraph long. “The current work doesn't add to the literature, it detracts from it” (or something like that). The decision was made on the basis of only one reviewer. One paragraph. Overly harsh.

That was real encouraging. Enough to drive a fledgling researcher out of the field, eh? “Don't take it personally” is the recommended mantra. Don't take it personally. Don't take it personally.


I'm very proud to have been appointed Destructive Critic by an admired giant in the field - Max Coltheart!

Arguably, I am the first destructo-critic, given that I started The Neurocritic blog back in 2006. This was well before the current replication crisis in social psychology.2 My inaugural entry critiqued an fMRI paper on empathy, followed by posts on lie detection, HARKing,3 media sensationalism, ubiquitous anterior cingulate and insular activation, the insufficiency of fMRI for explaining qualia, mind reading, and anonymous peer review. I didn't notice any ad hominem attacks back then. Have I become more snarky over time?

As Neuroskeptic wondered, when the critics of critics don't name names, how are we to know who are the objectionable ones, and who are the ones aiming to improve the field? Perhaps it's time for some self-examination, and that's true for stakeholders on both sides of the fence. My aim has always been to improve the field I love. Or else, why would I have persisted for so long?

Self-Destructive Critic

In real life I am my own harshest critic. It's a pernicious and intractable element of my disease. I never apply the same standards to other people. I always try to frame criticism (whether in person or in anonymous peer reviews) in as positive a light as possible. “It might be better if the authors tried this...” Try to find the positive elements. Most people would say I'm very considerate.

In real life I am a self-destructive critic of the self. And this is my truth.


1 I can think of one notable exception, a very high profile public figure in the UK... and even then, much of the criticism is of her views.

2 It's mostly called The Replication Crisis in Psychology, but the strong focus has been on social psychology. Neuroimaging research (fMRI) has come under fire as well. Initiatives for data sharing (e.g., OpenfMRI and Neurovault and the fMRI Data Center well before that) and reproducibility are on the rise.

3 Hypothesizing after the results are known (Kerr, 1998)

Further Reading

Promoting open, critical, civil, and inclusive scientific discourse in Psychology

The Day the Palm hit the Face

Some thoughts on methodological terrorism this one is particularly indispensable

Weapons of math destruction

Terrorist Fiske Jab: On “Destructo-Criticism”

“Methodological terrorism” and other myths

We talked to the scientist at the center of a brutal firestorm in the field of psychology

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