Dear Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Fellow Humans: Be Controversial.

By Eryn Slankster-Schmierer, PhD on July 29, 2021

Believe it or not, a doctoral program isn’t designed to make you an expert in your field: that is a pleasant consequence. Sometimes I think even scientists forget this. A PhD program is designed to teach you how to think. It teaches you how to ask the right questions (develop hypothesis), and how to find the answers (design experiments). It teaches you to analyze problems critically, and effectively communicate those ideas (scientific writing), and analyze other people’s science critically (peer review).

This will forever be the education that I am grateful for. I have been trained to question: I am a cautious observer, a fierce skeptic, I question (not necessarily reject) authority, and I challenge the status quo. We have been trained from day one of graduate school to question experimental design of the authority (papers published by scientists), but lately, I fear that scientists may be falling in line, letting others do the thinking for them.

Fearing that their identity does not belong in science, scientists remain quiet, reserved, limited. They fold their star shaped selves to fit into the square shaped expectations that they perceive their peers and superiors have set for them.

Alas, maybe this is projection, but a projection that makes me ask: Do I belong here?

Identity politics leads to unremarkable, conventional thinking.  

Identity politics have infested today’s society. The “tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances” (Oxford Languages) means if you’re LGBTQ+, you must be democratic, NRA supporters must be Republican, you get the idea.

This leads to feeling pressured to behave a certain way in order to fit into a beloved class. If I don’t wear my mask, they’ll think I’m republican, but by being an academic they’ll assume I’m a democrat. Because I’m pro-choice I’m interpreted as a baby killing democrat, and my gun means I’m a republican endorser of violence. Depending on who we talk to, we have to dodge topics as to not trigger any temperamental fuses, or risk being permanently labeled as something we’re not.

Once, someone told me that I couldn’t possibly be a true scientist because no true scientist would “talk like that,” referring to language used on my social media.  

Unfortunately, identity politics isn’t limited to the traditional governmental scope. As a society, we have stumbled into a chronic state of appeal to purity (or the “no true Scotsman” fallacy). Everyone needs to fit cleanly into a label, political or otherwise.

“If you don’t fit into the mold I created; I reject you.” -Appeal to Purity Fallacy

The problem isn’t that a random person doesn’t think I’m a scientist because I’ve dropped more F-bombs than I can count. The problem is that society has created expectations to neatly categorize people. Too many of us succumb to this pressure, compelled to fulfil that stereotype lest we be mistaken for the wrong classification. Fostering a society that is afraid to speak out of character, this mindset prevents us from proposing unique, thought provoking, unconventional ideas. Instead of being interpreted as controversial, we end up bland and unremarkable.

Scientists also fall victim of the Purity Fallacy.

Unfortunately, I see this division in full force. As a scientist, if I provoke conversation with research papers on achieving certain immunity without intervention, I get hastily rejected by scientists instead of engagement in conversation. At the terror of accepting some people could be exempt from artificially induced immunity, I am met with outrage and rejection of ideas instead of intellectual conversation. A scientist even implied to me that it is my duty to maintain a united front; for a perceived authority (scientist) to publicly question universal recommendations was thought to be irresponsible. The loudest of us must vehemently shame conversation that contradicts current recommendations: that is our political purity. This does two things: 1) sets a louder authority for people to follow, and 2) lets other scientists know that their unorthodox thinking is not welcomed in the world of science. Stay in line.

Once I brought up evidence of ecological destruction through fish consumption (see: Seaspiracy). In attempts to “prove” me wrong, an ecologically trained scientist bombarded me with screenshots of opinions refuting the evidence. (Think statements like “I’m an authority and I say Seaspiracy is wrong.”) Because my evidence conflicted with their world-view, the data wasn’t even acknowledged. Rather, the person responded with rage as if I attacked their own personal identity. “I am an environmentalist; therefore, my fish consumption couldn’t possibly lead to the decline of sea ecology.” I inadvertently challenged identity purity, and society perceives that as a personal attack.

Let me give you a high-profile, current example. Dr. Fauci gives recommendations (opinions) based on reductionist science (facts obtained through out-of-context experiments), and has concluded that means all his words are factual. “Attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science,” says Dr. Fauci.  Fauci (along with his avid supporters) has created an environment where he is the only acceptable authority; now because of purity politics, scientists (as well as democrats; read about political polarization: Science-Backed Authoritarianism is Still Authoritarianism) must always agree with Dr. Fauci, or risk being labeled anti-science. Anyone who disagrees with his recommendations (opinions based on reductionist science) are labeled anti-science and are therefore justifiably rejected. (Read: Scientism: Rationalizing Cultural Polarization).

Fall in line. Don’t question. Obey and agree, or be cancelled. Because what on earth would we do if we missed an opportunity that we never actually wanted in the first place.

For the love of novelty, please stop falling in line.

As PhDs we are taught to think independently, critically, and uniquely. Alas, our society is driving us to be photocopies of each other, reciting exactly what “we” want to hear. Contradictory data and ideas get rejected and delegitimized across the board, by principal investigators, peer-review panels, scientific conference coordinators, media, society, and friends. 

And it’s not enough that we disagree with ideas, but we must outright reject and exclude them from the realm of possibility. Why? Sunk-Cost Fallacy. We as humans do not like the idea that we have invested so much energy (money, time, effort) into a particular thought, only to have our entire world-view challenged. It aggravates our ego.

Remarkable ideas are never immediately and overwhelmingly accepted. We all praise the underdog of the past, worshipping the unsupported innovators who persevered against the odds and revolutionized the world as we know it, but no one’s willing to stand beside them in the present. We need more controversy in science. Controversy leads to more ideas that demand change in mindset. More challenging conversation. More innovation. We need to stop ostracizing confrontational science. Remove the fear to communicate and watch ideas flourish.

Yet the current mindset is that we must fall in line. Act like a scientist, act like a democrat, dress this way, or behave that way. Because of this, I should hide my ethical veganism lest I can’t get a job in a field that endorses animal exploitation. If I talk about the unethical practices of academia openly, how might I obtain employment through them? If I question the ethics of pharmaceuticals and industry, they won’t pay me, either. By being apparent with who I am, I am unemployable by most traditional standards. And to be honest, I’m not content with today’s solution: minimize yourself to fit into a tiny, socially acceptable box, hide your social media, speak professionally, have a twitter but don’t use it, have a linked-In but only post square-shaped content.

My vision for the future of fellow scientists, entrepreneurs, and humans: be controversial. Be bold. Have opinions, values, and moral stances. Be strong, independent, and daring. Not everyone is going to believe in your mission, but we must be bold enough to have independent and unorthodox thought, or else we get blended seamlessly into the sea of ordinary and unexceptional.  

But here is the catch: to be accepted despite the controversial ideas we all bury within us, the ones that make us unique and innovative, we must also be bold enough to listen to and accept someone else’s unorthodox ideas without cancelling them.

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