Civility in Scientific Debate

Disagreement, dissent, challenges to commonly held positions? Cool. Ad-hominum attacks, sexist language and images, name-calling? Not cool.

Critique and dissent can be eloquently expressed, and often they are. I have read thoughtful letters to the editor and received constructive, if painful, reviews of my work (side note: learn how to write constructive reviews!). There are well-established professional norms in these contexts. On social media, however, discourse is less measured and formal. A benefit of this democratization of publication means that ideas challenging power structures and status quo can propagate more easily, cross-pollination among disciplines flows naturally, and historically underrepresented voices can gain a wide audience. But a downside to this lack of gate-keeping is sometimes the deterioration of debate.

Scientists and clinicians use Twitter for education and conversation (for great examples, see #FOAMed— free open-access medical education). Many of us use the platform to communicate ideas and research findings to a wide audience, both other scientists and the public. Social media offers a channel to interact with people whose work you admire, too. It’s a great way to share your hard work, comment on debates, ask questions, and yes, disagree.

But Twitter isn’t without its downsides, one of which is immediacy: the second you hit publish, your words are out there, associated with your name. It’s too easy for something you dashed off in a fit of pique to come to represent your professional self. It’s also easy to forget that there are people behind the hashtags and handles: if you wouldn’t say something to a human in front of you, it’s likely not wise to tweet it, either— but the sense of anonymity encouraged by social media platforms can embolden some people. In combination, these factors can create conditions where bullying and other bad behavior, rather than reasoned debate, take over.

Take a recent online kerfuffle involving cardiology trainee Danielle Belardo, MD, and Jeff Nelson, who owns the website Dr. Belardo recommends olive oil to her patients as part of a plant-based diet, and she shares this information on her social media channels. She bases her advice on scientific evidence and the recommendations of professional bodies such as the American College of Cardiology. There is plenty of conflicting evidence on dietary approaches to reduce risk of heart disease, and many disagree on the conclusions, including Nelson. Dietary patterns stir up lots of dissent, and that’s good. But rather than engage in conversation about the differing viewpoints on the science, Nelson posted an inflammatory meme including blatantly sexist imagery, in an apparent attempt to ridicule discredit Dr. Belardo. This behavior is, unfortunately, not unusual. People, especially women, who voice controversial ideas online are frequently subject to this kind of bullying and often to sustained harassment also. Outside of social media, a physician who promotes an evidence-based but controversial idea will likely have fans and detractors, but on twitter, she has trolls and bullies. Suddenly, rather than an intellectual back-and-forth focused on difference of opinion and evaluation of evidence, we have the digital equivalent of name-calling, schoolyard insults, and stalking.

This behavior isn’t only bad for the targets, it’s also bad for science. Unfortunately, incivility online can have a chilling effect of innovation and conversation. Afraid of triggering flame wars, some may hesitate to ask excellent probing questions. Afraid of trolls, some may hesitate to speak controversial truths. And fearing aggressive bullying, some (especially women, who are the targets of much egregious behavior) may resist speaking altogether. Diversity of methods, opinions, identities, and backgrounds should always be welcome in science, and it’s hugely detrimental to progress when brilliant people are silenced.

How can we promote civility and dissent, which are good for science? I don’t know that there’s an easy answer, but I will leave you with these words from social scientist Amy Cuddy, who has weathered her share of online incivility: “The only way to elevate the civility and quality of scientific debate is to radically depart from personal attacks and public shamings. We have to replace fear and indignation with excitement and curiosity. If there’s a genuine interest in understanding any complicated scientific phenomenon, there is a way forward. It requires openness, listening, trust, and collaboration.” (source:

How can you contribute to openness, listening, trust, and collaboration?

#scicomm #supportwomen


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