Science has a "Mean Girls" Problem
Recently, some scientists were engaged in a heated debate on Twitter. This, per se, is nothing new. If a fairy would die every time scientists politely insult each other on social media, they would constantly be dropping out of the sky. However, this debate hit closer to home than the usual arguments on the interpretation of p-values, Frequentist versus Bayesian statistics and programming languages (let’s settle this once and for all – R wins, sorry Python aficionados. For those of you, who associate the alphabetic character, the snake or the British comedy group with these names - don’t worry, you are not missing out.)
The subtle bullying in the 2004 instant classic Mean Girls took place in an analogue world. Since then, we have left high school and entered the digital realms - where the spirit of the Plastics lives on.
This most recent Twitter discussion was sparked when the British Education Secretary Damian Hinds remarked that a degree in Psychology would be of ‘low value’, as some statistics suggested that graduates would not be able to repay their student loans within the first 5 years of completing their education. This echoed the tune of a familiar song: there seems to be an implicit pecking order of what is considered the most important and ‘legit’ kind of science.
How did we get here?
In the fictional world Hinds refers to, the classic STEM subjects, such as Physics, Mathematics and Medicine rank at the very top. Then come the less ‘hard’ sciences, the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. I remember attending an inspiring talk from someone outside of Psychology, which they defensively prefaced with: ‘I know you don’t think this is proper science, but believe me, this is what is considered the gold standard in my field.’
I have not been around long enough to witness this rank order emerge, but I can imagine it started around the same time we began developing systematic approaches for how we do science. Maybe William James, one of the founding fathers of Psychology, was already struggling with being taken seriously by the wider scientific community when he first described the principles according to which we still teach today.
Whenever I venture outside of my small area of expertise, I encounter people who, with great passion, share their thoughts and their enthusiasm for a topic they are investigating. Sometimes the problem is so intricate that it can be challenging to communicate to a non-academic audience, why this thing is so exciting. However, this should not be the case for fellow academics. As humans, we have a unique ability to empathize with others - regardless of their scientific specialization.
I can empathize with any researcher passionate about their subject, I can feel the pain of anyone who has worked for a long time on a difficult question and celebrate with colleagues outside of my lab who experience the joy that comes from discovering something new. For me, and I would argue any scientist, this should not be a big leap to make.
Just because a certain field of research is rooted in other norms and methodologies, it cannot be considered ‘lesser than’ or ‘unimportant’. Even more, I want to advocate for the idea that we can benefit from learning about other scientific disciplines and can be inspired by an idea which at first glance may appear completely unrelated to our own research.
Here are some practical examples of these proposed benefits. Hopefully, you’ll see that you don’t, in fact, have to be an interdisciplinary researcher to take advantage of them.
Thinking outside the box
Let’s take a little pop quiz: Who was the scientist who in 2016 first recorded gravitational waves?
Did you know that, similar to the recent image of a black hole, a large team of scientists from various disciplines was behind this big jump forward in human discovery and knowledge? In fact, some researchers argue that the power of team science can be harnessed beyond Physics and can be applied to solve many of the problems the field of Psychology struggles with at large.
With this idea in mind, the Psychological Science Accelerator (PsySciAcc) was born – ‘the CERN for Psychology’. This large-scale network of researchers across the world (including Glasgow’s Ben Jones and Lisa DeBruine) aims to tackle two important issues in psychological science: small and WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) participant samples. Research projects are proposed to the PsySciAcc and the ones that are selected are conducted across many labs, with scientists following the same experimental procedure in Kenya, Malaysia and Ecuador (among other countries) to investigate, for example, the Valence-Dominance Model of Social Perception.
Another benefit relates to a topic I want to call ‘the struggle is real’: I recently read a book by the Edinburgh-based palaeontologist Steve Brusatte (The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs), and found myself chuckling at many of the anecdotes he describes when it comes to conferences, talks, undergraduate life, tales of scientific feuds and the sweet ‘eureka’ moment of discovery.
And while my personal experience with digging up dinosaur bones is unfortunately limited, I think we can agree that academia is a special ecosystem, associated with some struggles that people can relate to everywhere. If you have ever felt a bit awkward or out of place in a room full of senior academics, were nervous before a talk, or hesitated to raise your voice in a discussion, you can connect with early career scientists from any discipline, whether this is STEM or the Arts and Humanities.
Many more examples underline the idea that keeping an open mind towards other fields of research and different methodologies can lead to more human connections and better scientific outcomes.
As scientists, we cannot control where curiosity leads us. What we can control, and what we all share, is a desire to find the truth and to advance shared knowledge. In these divisive times, it can be reassuring to focus on the things that unite us as a community, not those that drive us apart. Let’s try to be a little less ‘Mean Girls’ and a bit more ‘Breakfast Club’.
Header image by Athena LeTrelle on Flickr.