Nasty… and not in a nice way!


There’s always been a competitive side to science, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a rotten apple in every departmental barrel. But what I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so across academic life is gradual deterioration in the tenor of scientific discourse, freying at the fabric of collegiate relationships, and a kind of power-posturing approach to intellectual debate. Many academic scientists, certainly in social media posts, now use the kind of language and approach that isn’t a million miles away from Trump. Life, within the scientific community generally, has gotten a little nastier.

You can be nasty in a way that isn’t not nice, and not just in the Janet Jackson sense of the term. One of first paper rejections I got as a PhD student felt pretty nasty. My supervisor went ballistic which involved rolling his eyes, groaning, and chaining Galoise for at least an hour. A reviewer had pretty much claimed we had no knowledge of the field and proceeded to question our intelligence. I took it on the chin. The review could have been a lot kinder, but at least they had gone to the trouble of writing something. Fundamentally, on reflection, I think the reviewer was attempting to inform us – it was a perhaps senior colleague (possibly affronted at our failure to include their work) giving a junior researcher a stern and rather patronising (anonymous) dressing down. After a day gnashing teeth I comprehensively digested the work I’d been told I’d ignored and reassured myself there was a lesson to be learned. It wasn’t a nice experience, but the nastiness served a certain purporse. The paper finally got published somewhere else (a higher impact journal, in fact) and I subsequently had an “interesting” night out in Seattle with the person I firmly believe was that reviewer. (Social psychologists say you can have a destiny or a growth approach to relationships: in all but a few, tragic cases, I opt for growth…)

There is an excellent, thoughtful and gentle piece of writing by Harvard geneticist Pardis Sebeti that recently appeared in the Boston Globe. Sebeti criticises the over-zealousness and sometimes downright bullying of the self-proclaimed Open Science brigade. He points to instances of bullying, partial evaluations of evidence and information, and what at times amounts to harrassment on social media. His article drew a big reaction, both from supporters and from others.

Some time ago I also wrote a pretty gentle (by my standards) piece on what I felt were problems with Registered Reports. My points were, in essense, that (1) compelling academics to use this particular format for manuscript and grant submission endangered diversity and opportunity for scholars from nontraditional backgrounds and in novel and emerging areas of research, and (2) that the prescription for an undoubted problem in psychological science was too severe, amounting to bathing the baby in acid before throwing out baby, bathwater and all.

The responses I received were like nothing I have seen before or since. No debate, no discussion, no intelligent engagement with the arguments. Just nasty. The issue of diversity was completely ignored. And when I say that the responses were like nothing I have received before, bear in mind that I have faced the full force of personal vitriol from contributors to the Daily Mail and Fox News website comments section. No reasonable person would disagree with a call for greater transparency in science, but Pardis Sebeti is right about the downside of revolutions. This isn’t scientific debate; we shouldn’t stand for it.

Stopping it begins on a local level – resisting a casual culture of bullying or calling out lies. It goes without saying that the culture in different institutions, and different departments, varies wildly. That shows us that a universal slide into nasty science isn’t inevitable. Two years ago I suddenly realised how great life at work can be when you are not having to contend with placating “me, me, me” colleagues and when there is a genuine focus on using science to solve real world problems rather than mitigating the egos of colleagues set on persuing narrow self-interest at any cost. That was an ontological as well as an institutional shift for me, and it may be that in bigger ponds there is more opportunity to find friendly fish. But I should also say, from my experience, many who hold themselves up as big fish tend to swim in smaller ponds for a reason.

The nastiness is likely the consequence of a few co-occuring elements. RAE and REF, league tables, TEF up the ante in terms of workload pressure. And they do so in a particular way, by driving a wedge between and attaching differing values to different academic roles: researcher, teacher, administrator. These pressures breed a culture of disrespect and allow the bullies and the narcissists to flourish. The subtle, careful, considered academic can find it hard to negotiate such a minefield. It is academia, science, and all of us who lose in the end. Because the real casualty is that what matters and, yes, the desire for knowledge and truth, trails out of focus and in it’s place are some people’s versions of the way things should be… and heaven forbid that you should argue against them!


There’s a new project brewing – working title: Rudie Can’t Fail – and that’s why my blogging has been and will be less frequent for a while… More on that soon.

Life on Mars

Escapism: it’s no longer a godawful small affair. In May this year, at the cost of around $300 million, NASA will launch its Insight Lander to Mars to (hopefully) land an deploy a probe to test for, amongst other things, evidence of life.


The possibility of life on Mars has, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, for a long time been one of humanity’s “known unknowns”. Cultural theorists often speak of the underlying motivations for the deluge of sci-fi films in 1950s American cinema – linking this to the Cold War, existential angst, an emerging space programme. The films may have tapped an underlying sociopolitical Zeitgeist, but they did so in a specific way: they offered a palliative for an underlying need for escape, diagnosed by a particular pulse. Public fascination with possibility of extraterrestrial life endures even though what exists out there might be so unknown that what ends up counting as “life” requires us to redefine and re-imagine the parameters.


Escape, fantasy, is as necessary condition for reality in the same way that the impossible is required for the possible. Impossibility has to be possible. And if anyone ever tells you “nothing is impossible” tell them a triangle with four sides is impossible, and so is a machine that would give a true/false answer to every statement. The laws of maths define a triangle and the machine couldn’t give an answer to the statement, “This machine will not say that this sentence is true”. (Warning: there is a danger you might get punched in the head if you actually try this… or break Alexa). Similarly, we need the unknown to reassure us about the known, to help us stay clear from the precipice of Cartesian doubt…

Of course, you can convince yourself, or choose to believe that a triangle with four sides is possible. Just like Andrew Neil can (allegedly) deny climate change, or Lady Elizabeth Blount can choose to believe that the earth is flat. You can be wrong without being delusional. Positive escapism, like a good conspiracy theory, sits somewhere in between the possible and the impossible, between reality and fantasy.

And there are positive sides to escapism. At its best, escapism is a helpful coping strategy and we indulge in many different types of it every day. It is flight rather than fight, and if you can fly to your happy place all the better. Escapism is a kind of drug and if you learn how to administer the dose safely and effectively, and recognise that it’s a panacea, not a cure, why not?

There’s no doubt that there is a positive escapism. But there’s a negative one too. It can atrophy your ability to pursue purpose. Getting out-of-your-head gives a hangover in the morning. A curious but lovely Japanese study into adolescents’ internet escapism – splitting your life into real vs online versions – found, over time, that those who had experienced some distress had increased internet addiction and problems in daily functioning. The escape, the flight path, did not lead to a sucessful recovery.


Worse, it can lead to a kind of cycle of mental self-harm. You see it in relationships where, regardless of the levels of psychological abuse, individuals remain with a damaging partner regardless. That negative escapism inevitably damages not only themselves, but their relationships with others and prevents meaningful personal development. If you stay on an escape route for too long you may not end up in prison, but you are permanently on the run; you are Jean Valjean.

And if you don’t descend into a more permanent state of psychosis, the best you can hope for is that the next morning reality invariably shows up to wreck the party. In a worst case scenario that’s coming back from a great night out to find that someone recorded over The League of Gentlemen with the Mrs Brown’s Boys 2015 Christmas Special. There’s reality right there – suck it up. For NASA’s Mars Insight Lander, which touches down in November, reality for now is discovering that alongside the scientific equipment will be two silicon microchips containing the names of over a million people who requested “boarding passes” for the journey. On the face of it, boarding passes are a great way to engage children, others, and inspire them to dream. But if the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, and somehow Toby Young managed to inveigle a pass, you have to ask if that is a level of risk you can tolerate. It might be just the motivation needed for any primordial soup lingering under the Martian ice caps to get it’s act together, evolve and weaponize.