Reform on Social Media

How can scientific reform communicate better on social media?

Posted Jul 27, 2019

From Tim Guow on Pexels
Early communication in science reform was a response to feeling ignored by mainstream psychology.
Source: From Tim Guow on Pexels

Finding the psychology reform community has been one of the most affirming experiences in my scientific career.

Echoing the sentiments of many people who attend the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS) meetings, among these people I felt like the normal hierarchical gamesmanship at academic conferences evaporated. Anyone with a good idea or particular expertise—from new (or aspiring) graduate students to full professors—would be listened to and treated with respect.

I felt both empowered to make contributions where I could, but also like I could learn from anyone around me. Yet as good as my experience has been, the perceptions of the science reform community are mixed among psychologists generally. Sometimes that is because science reformers are challenging authorities with legitimate points, but sometimes it is due to problems with the movement itself—particularly the way it manifests on social media.

In part, this is due to the modes of communication that nurtured reformers. It was common to hear stories about how critiques of published research articles, or people who detected possible fraud, were ignored by journals and established scientists.

In the early days, it seemed like the native language of reform was the frustrated blog or social media post. These kinds of detailed, specific critiques—which were often based on well-understood points from the statistical or methodological literature which the rest of psychology seemed to ignore—drew praise for pointing out problems swept under the rug by much of mainstream psychology.

Unfortunately, the frustrated, righteous critique is not always a formula that’s welcoming to outsiders, especially when it’s based on the technical details of specific statistical tests. Calling people out, and then having a series of people cheering on the sidelines, can feel hostile to people who don’t understand or aren’t inherently interested in the technical arguments.

That style can also lead to a sort of online mob psychology, where other people pile on (the pile on from random users has become one of the hallmarks of social media). There is value in challenging authority when it ignores legitimate critiques, but that’s different from reflexively dismissing or insulting someone’s new paper posted on social media.

Part of what’s prompting this blog post is seeing several deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable psychologists I know through social media express a concern that they don’t feel welcome among reformers. This is despite the fact that these people are no fans of the status quo and have their own points to make about how to improve psychology as a science.

When I heard them say they wouldn’t be willing to attend SIPS, I was disappointed. These are people I have learned from, and who I think would bring fresh ideas—and solutions—to the reform community.

And while my intuition is that, in person, these people would have had the kinds of welcoming experiences I and others had, I also can understand why they would be leery of attending, especially if their only knowledge of the community was through social media. I’ve had prominent members of the reform community get testy with me on social media, and it’s not pleasant.

From Moose Photography on Pexels
Without moderation and perspective, frustration becomes counter-productive and absurd.
Source: From Moose Photography on Pexels

To spur some discussion about how members of the science reform community can better engage with others, I’m proposing the following guidelines for social media discussion:

1. If you are making the same point repeatedly with the goal of getting someone else on the internet to admit you are right, you are likely being overly aggressive.

In my experience, people don’t change their minds about complex, important topics on the spot. People tend to digest arguments over time, and you are more likely to convince people by making your point articulately once (and maybe re-iterating it once, and only once) than by repeatedly trying to push them into the death grasp of your inevitable logic. Make your point and then drop it.

2. Don’t make demands.

No one on the internet owes you an explanation, an apology, or even a response. Those are things you earn by demonstrating it is worth someone’s time to engage with you.

This can be frustrating, because you think the point someone made publicly is wrong-headed and may even offend you on some level. If so, make your counter-argument publicly and cogently and then step away, because people don’t get convinced by devastating reasoned arguments—they get convinced by digesting good ideas on their own (see 1).

3. If someone makes a common error that you have had to correct many times—or you have seen others correct many times—it’s probably because they haven’t read the technical literature and blog posts and Facebook discussions about it that you have.

The thing about common errors is, they’re common. If they push back against this view, it’s not your job to just assert it more vehemently. It’s your job to grow the community of people who understands the technical details of scientific procedures, which is done by addressing each person raising the issue as if it’s the first time they’ve thought about it. It probably is.

If you’re fed up answering questions about this error, consider just leaving them with some references and tuning out.

4. If there is a substantial power difference between the people communicating, the person with more power should show restraint in how they address the junior person.

Academia is a small, incredibly hierarchical community where status counts for a lot. Senior academics decide who gets published, hired, awarded grants, and promoted, which fosters a culture of undue reverence for people and connections over ideas. Dressing down a junior colleague publicly on social media—even if you think they are off-base and perpetuating a problem—is particularly humiliating in this weird, feudal, fish-bowl career we’ve all chosen.

Part of the ethos of scientific reform is rejecting this reverence for the person over the idea. To build a community, address the person with the respect you’d show a peer. One day they likely will be.

5. Listen.

In many ways, this is the most important point. If someone is expressing a concern or doesn’t agree with you on some point, there is probably a reason. You might be right about the point you’re trying to make, but the other person might perceive the problem in a slightly different way—and your point might not quite fit with that way of parsing things.

Even if you think you can rebut the other person’s point immediately, take the time to restate it in its most charitable form, so that the person knows you paid attention and understood them. This can be as persuasive as the substance of any argument.

From rawpixel on Pexels
Only by reflecting on & digesting these ideas will people change their minds (see Point 1).
Source: From rawpixel on Pexels

The psychology reform community felt, at one time, like an embattled minority that was tired of being ignored. It’s not yet the majority, but it’s no longer a small group at the margins. Our job is now is not just to call attention to common problems in scientific practice, but to grow the community interested in learning the solutions.

One of the ways we can do this is by considering how we communicate those solutions. I wrote these guidelines to meet the goal of growing the community, but they’re also a call for us to do better at addressing our peers in general.

Consider your goal in communicating. Are you trying to demonstrate your intelligence and insider knowledge, or improve the field? And consider that by pursuing the first, you might be harming the second. We’re not doing well enough at growing out community right now, and we’re losing the voices and ideas of some great people.