Have you noticed how political correctness has made its imprint on the scientific discourse that is being shaped up at conferences? The days of hearing offensive remarks for the sake of scientific truth are more or less behind us, yet there is something to be said in defense of raw and unfiltered emotion that used to be omnipresent at scientific meetings. Maybe the feel-good atmosphere we experience these days is because the stakes are higher and people are thinking a lot more about their image and reputation? We used to say that arguments and politics in science get nasty because the stakes are low. This is true of the older days, but maybe not anymore? The way things used to unfold is almost inconceivable to those who embark on a career in science nowadays. And I am not even talking about one’s behavior at a conference. When I was a postdoc we used to have a special term when a confrontation between two people was taking place. That “blissful” moment, when one of the parties to an argument was being attacked, was compared to him/her being asked to bring out the “shinebox”. The video below explains this analogy. Here you see the immortal “Billy Batts” scene from Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (I apologize for the coarse language, but this is Scorsese, not me). What you see is an analogy to how heated arguments used to develop. I love DeNiro’s role in this scene when he says “Insulted him a little bit…” at 3:08-3:13. DeNiro corresponds to a peacemaker (albeit a temporary one!). Notably, there is often someone like that in a scientific argument as well. This sort of stuff is not happening in science anymore, though, because we are more civilized. Are we not?
I agree that we are more “civilized” nowadays, but you will occasionally still see some impassioned disagreements. I think it’s just been replaced with passive aggressiveness. I would make reference to the recent discourse between Organ and Nolan about whose (catalyst) is bigger (read: better).
Arguably the stakes are kind of high, though, but still more mild than any shineboxes.
Thanks for posting this! This is an interesting discussion, for sure.
To flatter everyone and to pick your fights carefully is a common sense, I don’t think it is an outbreak of “political correctness” or a lack of ballsiness in the current academia, while the research funding is increasingly harder to obtain and many more chemistry PhDs are graduating than there are jobs for them. You never know who ends up reviewing your grant or making a tenure decision about your former student, few years from now…
Nowadays the critique is done behind the back, through whispers and innuendo – especially when the work in question is from someone famous or well-connected. Do you remember the Bengu Sezen affair? There was more than two-year delay, from the time when several groups realized that Sames C-H activation papers were likely a fabrication, until this was finally dragged into open. No-one was eager to pick the fight with a Danshefsky’s protege.