Confidence and Friendliness in Science

I’ve seen three kinds of scientific cultures.

First, there are folks who are positive about almost everyone. Ask them about someone else’s lab, even a competitor, and they’ll be polite at worst, and often downright excited. Anyone they know, they’ll tell you how cool the work they’re doing is, how it’s important and valuable and worth doing. They might tell you they prefer a different approach, but they’ll almost never bash someone’s work.

I’ve heard this comes out of American culture, and I can kind of see it. There’s an attitude in the US that everything needs to be described as positively as possible. This is especially true in a work context. Negativity is essentially a death sentence, doled out extremely rarely: if you explicitly say someone or their work is bad, you’re trying to get them fired. You don’t do that unless someone really really deserves it.

That style of scientific culture is growing, but it isn’t universal. There’s still a big cultural group that is totally ok with negativity: as long as it’s directed at other people, anyway.

This scientific culture prides itself on “telling it like it is”. They’ll happily tell you about how everything everyone else is doing is bullshit. Sometimes, they claim their ideas are the only ways forward. Others will have a small number of other people who they trust, who have gained their respect in one way or another. This sort of culture is most stereotypically associated with Russians: a “Russian-style” seminar, for example, is one where the speaker is aggressively questioned for hours.

It may sound like those are the only two options, but there is a third. While “American-style” scientists don’t criticize anyone, and “Russian-style” scientists criticize everyone else, there are also scientists who criticize almost everyone, including themselves.

With a light touch, this culture can be one of the best. There can be a real focus on “epistemic humility”, on always being clear of how much we still don’t know.

However, it can be worryingly easy to spill past that light touch, into something toxic. When the criticism goes past humility and into a lack of confidence in your own work, you risk falling into a black hole, where nothing is going well and nobody has a way out. This kind of culture can spread, filling a workplace and infecting anyone who spends too long there with the conviction that nothing will ever measure up again.

If you can’t manage that light skeptical touch, then your options are American-style or Russian-style. I don’t think either is obviously better. Both have their blind spots: the Americans can let bad ideas slide to avoid rocking the boat, while the Russians can be blind to their own flaws, confident that because everyone else seems wrong they don’t need to challenge their own worldview.

You have one more option, though. Now that you know this, you can recognize each for what it is: not the one true view of the world, but just one culture’s approach to the truth. If you can do that, you can pick up each culture as you need, switching between them as you meet different communities and encounter different things. If you stay aware, you can avoid fighting over culture and discourse, and use your energy on what matters: the science.

6 thoughts on “Confidence and Friendliness in Science

  1. AshleyRPollard

    As a retired cognitive behavioural therapist, my suggestion is to blend both; skeptical positivity, but given humans don’t need skeptical positivity to maximize reproductive success another approach is needed.

    The first part of the solution would likely lie with skills for positive confrontation, and the second with positive critical feedback, which is trickier. If you want or need some pointers, then please feel free to contact me.


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      I wouldn’t have thought about CBT in this context, but it’s actually really well suited…maintaining both realistic beliefs and an attitude that lets you act on those beliefs is a theme that comes up again and again in just the little I know of the field.

      I know you suggested contacting you for pointers, but I’m curious if there are any tips you’d be comfortable sharing with the commenters here. I’m sure folks would find it interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. AshleyRPollard

        Sure, it all boils down to assertiveness and confrontation. The how of managing difficult conversations.

        I have a couple of books I’d recommend on this:

        The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Know to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, and in Life by Barbara Pachter & Susan McGee

        Assertiveness at Work: A Practical Guide to handling Awkward Situations by Ken & Kate Back

        These were part of the NHS books that could be prescribed, but obviously I can’t prescribe them to you.

        Hope that helps?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. bystander

    Tribalism is the common way in many academical institutions. It is coupled with a lot of toxicity. I witnessed it in Europe, and e.g. the string wars suggest it is in US too.


  3. J

    This is a tough question with much research to be done. As a US academic, I turned down a European postdoc in part because the culture clash of European directness was too big: I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t being attacked constantly, because it can be so hard to fight back against the constant internal battle with imposter syndrome. Obviously everyone was kind and my brain was misinterpreting the differences in culture as rudeness, but the monkey brain is stubborn and often refuses to listen to reason.

    We must be flexible between these styles, but we must always remember that we are animals not so distant from other hot-tempered primates, and being too critical/toxic can unfortunately halt the gears of science just as quickly as fraud can. I wish it were otherwise, but fighting our nature is tough stuff.


  4. AshleyRPollard

    I would argue the opposite. The challenge between the clash of cultures is an opportunity, though I would recognize that as such it is not necessarily tractable at the level of the individual.

    And as for flexibility, the observation of our ancestry and nature, if we are to be true to the scientific method, then arguably we start with the data, formulate a hypothesis, test it and evolve a theory.

    This is where, though I have no control over evidence based psychological medicine, the science of psychology has fallen. Unlike physics where on can imagine spherical cows to simplify a problem, emotional responses are triggered by meaning (both inferred and implied), and that human beings didn’t evolve to maximize our ability to conform our thinking to the scientific model.



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