Surviving backlash in science

5 minute read

What does it take to survive backlash in science?

It’s easy to make people angry in science. Say the wrong thing to the wrong people, and it’s easy to get people angry. I’m talking here specifically about backlash to scientific arguments that fall under legitimate scientific discourse. I view conflicts like these as mostly good—conflict begets progress. But backlash can also be damaging to a person’s career and psyche, especially when those with power punish any who disagree. I’ve had the chance to watch some different cases of backlash unfold thanks to the enormous amount of time I’ve spent (wasted) on Twitter since the start of the pandemic. I think that by summarizing a few of these, it’s possible to take away some kind of insight about what the effects of backlash, and how to survive it.

One way to provoke backlash is to explicitly attack the ideas of a big name. For an example, consider Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiological PhD student at the University of Wollongong. This young researcher took the brave, and maybe even risky step of publishing a meta-review that criticized the work of an incredibly famous Stanford professor John Ioannidis. The criticism was levied at Ioannidis’ modeling of COVID-19 fatality rates, models that underpinned his own opposition to lockdowns and which earned him appearances on Fox News to argue against mitigations. Ioannidis published a response to this meta-review which included a personal attack on Meyerowitz-Katz, insulting his experience and credentials. In many situations, this could have been a devastating career blow. Yet, fortunately, Meyerowitz-Katz handled his response well. The backlash he did receive came largely from one person, whereas he received support from other famous scientists and gained many new followers on Twitter.

Scientists can get things wrong—variables are left out, data is messy, and mistakes get made. Ideally, science corrects itself and converges towards truth over time. But it’s much harder to do so when there is outright fraud, and when attempts to correct it are met with threats. Elizabeth Bik, a microbiologist by training, now spends much of her time attempting to identify signals of image manipulation in published papers and notifies journal editors in an attempt to remedy the scientific record. What she does is a great service to the scientific community, resulting in retractions and corrections of fraudulent and suspicious works. It is also the kind of work that generates many enemies in the the authors of fraudulent work that Bik uncovers. She has been the target of harassment and even lawsuits. Without the financial and legal support of a university or organization, Bik is especially vulnerable to these kinds of threats. Fortunately for science, she is still active in sleuthing for scientific malpractice, establishing herself as a prominent figure into the growing scientific integrity community.

In other cases, a person can kick a hornet’s nest without realizing. For instance, César Hidalgo studies complexity science and economics, and has an envious resume brimming with accomplishments. However, even without meaning to, he found himself the target of disagreement by crossing the near-impenetrable boundary that isolates Economics from other disciplines. In a Twitter thread posted in February of 2021, Hidalgo outlined how his methods of research—applying Physics and Complex Systems to study economic phenomena—was met with derision by the Economics community, effectively marginalizing him, likely costing him tenure, and delaying important life plans. Fortunately, this toxicity did not push Hidalgo out of academia entirely, as he continues to do work at the University of Toulouse.

What can these cases tell us about surviving backlash? First, having a receptive audience is essential. Meyerowitz-Katz opinions represented many epidemiologists, ensuring that he had a well of support once the backlash erupted. But this level of baked-in support is probably rare. Having diverse audiences stretching across multiple communities leads to a more robust social position. If backlash burns bridges in one field, then having the support of another distinct community can provide support in the form of employment, collaboration, and resources. If Hidalgo was a classically-trained economic, the consequences of the backlash would have been more dire; fortunately, he approached economics from his home discipline of complex systems, cushioning the brunt of backlash. When these fail, then credibility and integrity are essential; Bik has cultivated these traits and thus has an inscrutable reputation ensuring that she can garner broad support of many even as she faces legal threats. At the same time, she has carved out a new audience, one interested in scientific integrity that stretches across all fields.

Its important to note that these cases are the survivors of backlash. There is an entire hidden side of science consisting of people whose careers were diminished or destroyed due to an argument with their advisor or a prominent scholar assaulting their reputation. Those most vulnerable to backlash will be from marginalized communities, such as women and people of color. Their voices and perspectives are then lost, leading to a duller, less dynamic, and less effective science.

Backlash isn’t just about gossip and academic drama. The process of making knowledge is inherently contentious. The disagreements, critiques, disputes, and challenges between scientists are bloody but necessary—it leads to progress. When pettiness prevents disagreements from happening or punishes those who raise their voice, it diminishes science. The best science is chaotic and discordant.