I have often wished we could simplify our social status signalling to the dog greeting technique. Start with your prior belief about your station in the hierarchy, and wag your tail / stand still / or shrink your posture accordingly; exchange a butt sniff; growl snap a bit if its not clear who is where; and if necessary, the superordinate rests its jaw on the subordinate’s neck. Everybody updates, and all proceed, interacting in accord with their station. Is status unequally distributed? You bet. But guess what: mutually destructive fights are off the table. Group function (a society with a chance to reproduce itself through time).
In her recent effort to re-establish the pre-science blogging / social media norms of academic communication (and perform her role of protecting her intellectual offspring), Professor Susan Fiske, a multiple award winning occupant of an endowed chair at Princeton, and the founder and leader of a very successful pyschology lab, invokes the “terrorist” bogeyman, and thus got the attention she was seeking. I discuss her use of that term below. First, I want to discuss the Mutual Admiration Society she invokes.
The Function of a Mutual Admiration Society
Fiske decries the rise of “Methodological terroroists,” a group of self-appointed data police who operate outside of professional norms by publishing critiques of published work on non-refereed blogs (shared via social media), often impuging the motives of the authors, and far worse. Yep, there be trolls, unbridled sexism, and much nastiness online, including academia. And since none of us have read all of the social media posts or blog posts that she has in mind when leveling this charge, I am content to accept her judgment that a non-zero, and perhaps 20%, 40% or even 70% portion of the relevant corpus would be judged by many as having met her standard. But I want to focus on her concern about the removal of peer review from publishing critiques that the scholarly community (and beyond) can access.
Here is Fiske, with most of her metaphoric hyperbole stripped. These bloggers
are ignoring ethical rules of conduct because they circumvent constructive peer review… Ultimately, science is a community, and we are in it together. We agree to abide by scientific standards, ethical norms, and mutual respect.
This bit is worthy of your consideration. Let’s break it down.
First, “science is a community.” Sure, most who self identify as scientists are likely modernists who believe (implicitly) that science is primarily a method, not a set of norms and institutions communally constructed. But I suspect all but the most hardline of such folks agree with Fiske on this claim.
Second, “We agree to abide by scientific standards…” Sure, its hand wavy, but her
post APS editor approved communication is brief, and it’s a big tent, so I am willing to believe that a super majority of us are on board, conditional on the content of the hand wave.
Third, “ethical norms…” Ahh, this is getting interesting. Let’s focus on bloggers who post about research. That is, engage in professional commentary that is publicly available but was not subject to any form of review (peer or otherwise). I think a majority of us (who read blogs) can agree that sarcasm, snark and wit are celebrated in much of academic blogging. And when Keiran Healy recently got “Fuck Nuance” accepted in a peer review discipline journal (with the three word abstract: “Seriously, fuck it.”), I cannot be the only one who thought “blog culture just crossed over.” Yup, the 1960s / 1970s tear down of formality in (especially American) culture that was then led in the 1980s/1990s by Silicon Valley corporate culture, had hit academia and the tail end of the baby boomers (who engage the culture relatively little) don’t like it. Enjoy the irony.
But just because we can raise late boomers who advocate Fiske’s position on their own petard does not weaken the position itself. Fiske’s implicit notion that ethnical norms are static is, of course, foolish. She would presumably acknowledge that. But we would be equally ridiculous to pretend that the changing winds Andrew Gelman referred to are not sudden and rapid (as he observes), but more to the point that the challenge to the ethnical norms which the collapse of the cost for sharing one’s ideas in the commons had produced have been jarringly quick. I suspect that many of us who blog dramatically underappreciate our (potential?) “influence.”
And if you don’t think of us as jointly producing news norms, including the subset of ethical conduct, well, may I recommend that you do some reading on norm construction. This, then, is why Fiske’s invocation of ethical conduct stands out to me. Should we do so in an unregulated market of conduct? Or should we address the collective action problem, pay the coordination costs, and explicitly negotiate ethical codes of blogging conduct?
Let me first observe the obvious problem that with few of the tens of thousands of the stake holders in academic societies are engaged in the blogosphere. Quelle surprise! [insert banal observations on youth, technology, and rebellion] So, yeah, the societies that have solved the collective action problem are not a promising vehicle for addressing this issue.
Second, well, the funny thing about solving collective problems is that it is really hard.
And it turns out that transaction costs are, well, costly.
I guess the unregulated to market of conduct would be the default.
And here we are.
Finally, Fiske writes, “mutual respect.” Ahhh. Here, I suspect, we would find a major divide. Those who contribute to, engage, and value the academic blogosphere (Open Access FTW) would, I strongly suspect, have a broad spread of views with respect to the value of, much less empirical content of, “mutual respect” than those who do not engage / value the blogosphere. Most of the latter, I suspect, would endorse the “mutual respect” norm, comparatively few questioning its value.
And this returns us to the butt sniffing dogs. Mutual respect is the primary lubricant that defines the Mutual Admiration Society. I like to describe it this way. Two academic peers encounter one another at a professional meeting, and perform the following ritual.
Academic A: “You’re so smart.”
Academic B: “You’re so smart!”
Butts sniffed Mutual recognition confirmed via mutual respect, they are free to part company, and even talk shite about one another’s work, privately. I think dogs’ solution to this collective action problem is much more transparent. As a general rule, I detest ritual. But I’d sign up for this.
Like all social institutions, the Mutual Admiration Society is both functional (permits society to operate efficiently), and produces perverse (aka, collectively suboptimal and, individually, unequally distributed) outcomes.
Welcome to social science. You did not need me to point that out to you. Well, because you are (likely) neurotypical and spend little time as an outsider to your social and professional circles, observing it and trying to figure out “Why the fuck do they do that?” perhaps you needed the assistance of an aspie who does spend most of his life standing outside his personal and professional circles wondering about precisely that question.
And Fiske’s post produces a moment to think about these four issues. What do you make of the Mutual Admiration Society, by which I mean:
- What do you think are its benefits?
- What do you think are its perverse outcomes?
- How might we improve it (by which I mean re-design norms and institutions such that we produce a self-enforcing new equilibrium).
And what do you think about professional ethical conduct in the blogosphere? Quixotically wishing it away is not a conversation that interests me, but I want to encourage you to think about whether the CA problem should be addressed, and if so, how?
On “Terrorists” and “Terrorism”
Having spent a non-trivial portion of my professional life thinking, teaching and even writing about “terror,” I would be remiss not to chastise Fiske for her horse shite coinage of the term “methodological terrorist.” If she hadn’t published several valuable, highly visible, articles on the process that dehumanization plays in making torture acceptable, I’d roll my eyes and declare her asinine choice unworthy of my disk space. But for someone so prominently familiar with the impact of that very term upon our species’ willingness to engage barbaric behavior , who then decries the shaming behavior of those she has just de-humanized via pejorative labeling…
What’s the word I’m looking for?
Unconscionable. Yup, that’s the word.
Such behavior is unconscionable. Shame on you, Professor Fiske. You need to hold yourself above such conduct. It is entirely possible for you to make your point constructively without engaging in such shockingly poor judgment.
But, damn. Props for those clicks!
NB: The original version of this post did not include the dog cartoon.
 By metaphoric hyperbole I am specifically referring to her use of the terms “destructo-critics,” “targets,” “methodological terrorist,” and “mob rule.”