A formula for making a terrible argument

Feb 12 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last night I was browsing twitter and saw something that popped up in my timeline a few times. I won't link to the exact tweet because I've seen virtually the same on from a dozen different people, but the formula will be very recognizable:

(My experience is THIS)+(Other people say THAT, which =/= my experience) = THAT doesn't happen.

It's a common argument writ large (hell, I'm sure I've done it too), but it's transparently dumb. You're saying your anecdata is all that matters and others are clearly wrong based on your experience and possibly that of your echo chamber colleagues.

In this particular case the topic was open access science and getting scooped. There is enormous variance among fields in how data are treated, the level of backstabbing that is common and what is at stake. It is entirely possible that your corner of science is all about sharing and love and drum circles. In that case, I'm willing to bet your opinions are shared by others in your group and a common topic of conversation at meetings, etc., is "If everyone just did what we do everything would be better!"

Maybe you're right. It's possible being able to see everyone's data and draft manuscripts would be the best thing that ever happened in science. Or maybe it wouldn't. Maybe in you field it's hard to actually scoop someone. Maybe it's not crowded enough for people to be able to without standing out. But are you confident that's the case across science?

As I wrote last night, I think all True Believers, regardless of their cause, should be taken with a massive grain of salt. More often than not, anyone who "knows what's best for everyone else" has not stood on the best side of history. Personally, I think the fear of being scooped is disproportionate to the risk, and I act accordingly. I've heard some fantastically contrived stories from colleagues who believed they were intentionally scooped, however, I've also watched it happen on more than one occasion. Even if the risk is low, who decides what is acceptable risk for someone else to take?

Allowing people the right to gauge their own comfort level with the openness of their science, in their field and their situation is something my colleagues have earned from me.

7 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    Strongly agree with everything here. Different approaches are appropriate for different people. No one's experience is universal. And I believe now as ever that there's room for two systems, and appropriate uses for each.

  • zb says:

    I agree that the premise that your experience must be the same as everyone else's is a bad one. But, in analyzing the issue with respect to open science we have to include the public, or founders, or taxpayers, or whoever has an interest in the science being done. Their interest puts a thumb on the scale in favor of access even with the risk of scooping. The scooping risk isn't weightless, since it distorts the currency of science potentially damaging the enterprise. But the interests of the third party has to be considered.

  • MTomasson says:

    Great points. But, umm..taking extremists with a grain of salt is something that can lead to trouble. True Believers tend to be amusing until they become terrifying.

    This issue--handling person experience and making generalizations from it -- is extraordinarily important, the issue of our time, I would say. It's also at the core of mindless white privilege. "I don't have this experience, so it must not be a thing."

  • I was alluding to those themes without wanting to go down that path for this particular post. There are many kinds of privilege that cause people to dismiss the opinions or experiences of others.

  • drugmonkey says:

    My privileges don't lead me to dismiss the experiences of others so that can't be right, Prof-like.

  • It seems that one issue is the cost/reward of data production; when data production overall is cheap relative to published output, people seem to play nicer with each other in terms of 'openess'.

  • I can buy that when cheap data are expensive to analyze.

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