[52] Menschplaining: Three Ideas for Civil Criticism

As bloggers, commentators, reviewers, and editors, we often criticize the work of fellow academics. In this post I share three ideas to be more civil and persuasive when doing so.

But first: should we comment publicly in the first place?
One of the best known social psychologist, Susan Fiske (.htm), last week circulated a draft of an invited opinion piece (.pdf), where she called academics who critically discuss published research in social media and blogs a long list of names including ‘self-appointed data police’ [1].

I think data-journalist is a more accurate metaphor than is data-police. Like journalists and unlike police officers, (academic) bloggers don’t have physical nor legal powers, they merely exercise free-speech sharing analyses and non-binding opinions that are valued by the people who choose to read them (in contrast, we are not free to ignore the police). Like journalists’, bloggers’ power hinges on being interesting, right, and persuasive.

Importantly, unlike journalists, most academic bloggers have similar training in the subject matter as the original authors whose work they discuss, and they inhabit their social and professional circles as well.  So bloggers are elite journalists: more qualified and better incentivized to be right [2].

Notorious vs influential
Bloggers and other commentators, as Susan Fiske reminds us, can fall in the temptation of getting more attention by acting out, say using colorful language to make unsubstantiated and vague accusations. But the consequences are internalized.

Acting out ends up hurting commentators more than those commented on. Being loud makes you notorious, not influential (think Ann Coulter). Moreover, when you have a good argument, acting out is counterproductive, it distracts from it.  You become less persuasive. Only those who already agree with you will respond to your writing. Academics who make a living within academia have no incentive to be notorious.

Despite the incentives to be civil, there is certainly room in public discussions for greater civility. If the president of APS had asked me to write a non-peer-reviewed article on this topic, I would have skipped the name-calling and gotten to the following three ideas.

Idea 1. Don’t label, describe
It is tempting to label the arguments we critique, saying about them things like ‘faulty logic,’ ‘invalid analyses,’ ‘unwarranted conclusions.’ These terms sound specific, but are ultimately empty phrases that cannot be evaluated by readers. When we label, all we are really saying is “Listen, I am so upset about this, I am ready to throw some colorful terms around.”

An example from my own (peer-reviewed & published) writing makes me cringe every time:
Their rebuttal is similarly lacking in diligence. The specific empirical concerns it raised are contradicted by evidence, logic, or both.
What a douche.

Rather than vague but powerfully sounding labels, “lacking diligence”, “contradicted by evidence,” it is better to describe the rationale for those labels. What additional analyses should have they run, and how do they contradict their conclusions? I should’ve written:
The rebuttal identifies individual examples that intuitively suggest my analyses were too conservative, but, on the one hand, closer examination shows the examples are not actually conservative, and on the other, the removal of those examples leaves the results unchanged.

Now readers know what to look for to decide if they agree with me. Labels becomes redundant, we can drop them.

Idea 2. Don’t speculate about motives
We often assume our counterparts have bad intentions. A hidden agenda, an ulterior nefarious motive. They do this because they are powerful, if not then because they are powerless. For instance, I once wrote
They then, perhaps disingenuously, argued that” Jerk.

Two problems with speculating about motives. First, it is delusional to think we know why someone did something by just seeing what they did, especially if it is in our interest to believe their intentions are not benign.  We don’t know why people do what they do, and it is too easy to assume they do so for reasons that would make us happier or holier.  Second, intentions are irrelevant. If someone publishes a critique of p-curve because they hate Joe’s, Leif’s and/or my guts, all that matters is if they are right or wrong, so when discussing the critique, all we should focus on is whether it is right or wrong.

Idea 3. Reach out
Probably the single thing that has helped me improve the most in the civility department consists of our policy in this blog: contacting authors whose work we discuss before making things public. It is amazing how much it helps, both after receiving the feedback, addressing things that tick people off that we would have never guessed, and before, anticipating remarks that may be irritating, and dropping them.

I obviously cannot do this as a reviewer or editor, in those cases I still apply Ideas 1 & 2. Also, as a heuristic check on tone, I imagine I am going to dinner with the authors and their parents that night.

1) I disagree with the substance of Susan Fiske’s piece. Academics discussing research in blogs and social media are elite data-journalists playing an indispensable role in modern science: disseminating knowledge, detecting and correcting errors, and facilitating open discussions.
2) I object its tone, calling colleagues terrorists, among many other things, increases the notoriety of our writing, but reduces its influence. (It’s also disrespectful).
3) I shared three ideas to improve civility in public discourse: Don’t label, don’t infer motives, and reach out.

Wide logo

Author feedback.
I shared a draft of this post with Susan Fiske who suggested I make clear the document that circulated was a draft which she will revise before publication. I edited the writing to reflect this.

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  1. Her piece included the following terms to describe bloggers or their actions: (1) Mob, (2) Online vigilantes, (3) Self-appointed data police, (4) Personal ferocity, (5) crashing people, (6) Unmoderated attacks, (7) Unaccountable bullies, (8) Adversarial viciousness, (9) Methodological terrorists, (10) Dangerous minority, (11) Destructo-critics, (12) They attack the person (oops), (13) Self-appointed critics. []
  2. and less interesting, and worse at writing, and with less exciting social lives, but with more stable jobs. []