The Proper Roles of Hype and Emotion in Science

Recently a few respected scientific colleagues responded to some findings regarding the relatively warm global surface temperatures apparent so far in 2016, compared to the previous year(s), with adjectives such as “stunning”, “shocking”, “disturbing”, etc. Why?

As scientists, is our purpose to act stunned, shocked, saddened or ecstatic (depending on our emotional attachment to the findings or sociopolitical biases revolving thereabouts)?

Alternatively, should we dismiss the temptation to launch hyperbole and simply present scientific findings to media and policy-makers in a factual, levelheaded, mature manner?

I advocate the latter. It is not our purview to influence policy or public opinion on the merits of our own work (or others’ research that directly involves ours); in fact one can argue that it is a conflict of interest. To any extent I may have done so ever, I ask for forgiveness.

Moreover, hyping and exclaiming results also leads to cumbersome, divisive backlash that can range from nuisance-grade distraction to substantially counterproductive to completely self-defeating. That wastes time and concentration that could be used to do science. Instead, we simply should present results, be open, reproducible and accountable about what we’re doing, and let the policymakers and opinions go from there.

If the data, methods and conclusions are robust, and can stand up to scrutiny, they will stand the test of time and attacks by ignorant non-scientists. As I often say, “Excellence is self-evident.” Also: “Excellence needs no self-advertisement.” Nor does it need embellishment from emotionally derived hyperbole. Humility and calm still have a place…or at least they should!

    “But…but…we’re humans, not robots! We have emotions!”

Acknowledged. True, yet irrelevant. To counter: we’re humans, not subhumans. This means the ability — and responsibility — to compartmentalize in a self-disciplined way, to extinguish the smoldering, toxic cigarette of emotion when we need to be objective and analytical. Snarling wolves arguing over a kill can’t turn off their rage or overexuberance, but we are higher-order sentient intellects than that. We can…and should.

It’s great to have a burning, chronically motivational baseline of passion about our fields of study; otherwise why do it? Yet in science, sometimes we need to be able to question, critique and even attack our own work dispassionately, and flip the switch off our egos and self-investments. We need to be prepared to defend our work objectively when it is robust, and to falsify it when counter-evidence appears. Check your emotions at the lab door. Those without that level of self-discipline are not well-suited for science and should consider other lines of work.

Scientists who find themselves emotionally invested in their research should back off that work until such time as it can be done more objectively, or pass it off to someone who has more maturity and self-control. Sure, results may surprise us; that’s the nature of any anti-hypothetical finding. However, hypotheses are meant to be refuted as much as supported. When I am doing research, I am not “shocked Roger”, nor “astounded Roger”, nor “conservative/libertarian Roger”. Those things are dropped off in a box and left there to pick up at the end of the research hours. Why? Easy: they are immaterial to the data, analyses and conclusions.

Data don’t care what we “feel”. The results simply are what they are. We analyze, report and conclude. Why add hype to that? To generate clickbait and draw attention to ourselves in order to pander to fawning from the frothing e-mobs with ten-second attention spans? I pray not! What we do as scientists is not about self, nor about shock-and-awe, but about science, about assessing evidence and offering the results thereof. To inform, not to titillate…otherwise we become walking mini-versions of TV “crockumentaries”, entertainers instead of informers, foolishly validating ourselves as scientists by how loudly an audience claps and whistles at our dog-and-pony act.

The Venn diagrams of reason and hype don’t overlap. And science, above all, is about logic and reason. Keep shock and shouting out of it and compartmentalized elsewhere, in other realms of life. Keep reasoned, keep cool and keep humble. Away from the lab or cubicle walls, in the world outside our own scientific studies, there’s plenty to be about which to be shocked, disturbed, dismayed, thrilled, ecstatic, enraged, etc. Inside: drill into the science and do it with utmost focus, unadulterated by emotional contamination.



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