Shira Klaiman

Promoting open, critical, civil, and inclusive scientific discourse in Psychology

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A number of us (Jim Coan, Yarrow Dunham, Kristina Durante, Eli Finkel, Shira Gabriel, Roger Giner-Sorolla, Michael Inzlicht, Cami Johnson, Alison Ledgerwood, Steve Spencer, Sanjay Srivastava, Jay Van Bavel, and Simine Vazire), from very diverse perspectives got together online a couple weeks ago and began a challenging and thought-provoking discussion about how to promote critical, open, civil, and inclusive scientific discourse. There are many more avenues these days that facilitate and promote discussions and debates, including a variety of online media. These new avenues bring new voices to the table, enable important debates and dialogues, and facilitate rapid transmission of information and ideas. Our email discussion centered around trying to find a way to support constructive discourse and constructive disagreements--of which there are many examples--both online and offline, while also speaking out against those (relatively infrequent) occasions when disagreements erupt into personal attacks and harassment.

We want to affirm a set of shared principles that we believe would characterize the best possible kinds of scientific discussions--the basic outline of something we could all seek to move toward. We have many different and often conflicting views on issues that relate closely to what we have written here, but we found we could all agree on these words, taken at face value, as they are written. Although it leaves much work to be done, this consensus, and the process that got us to this consensus, gives us hope.

We see this as the beginning--a statement of our hopes for the field rather than as the end of the discussion. What we wrote isn’t a list of rules, it is a statement of principles and we, as a field, still have a lot of work to do in order to figure out how to be true to them. We will use this statement as a guide in our professional actions, and we invite our colleagues to join us in this endeavor.

We invite you, if you agree with the values expressed in our statement, to join us in this endeavor and sign it as well. In signing, we each commit to thinking carefully about our own behaviors and how we foster a critical and inclusive scientific environment.

Eventually, the statement with all signatures will be published on the SPSP blog.

STATEMENT: Promoting open, critical, civil, and inclusive scientific discourse in Psychology

These last few years have been a time of great change and upheaval for psychology. This tremulous time has coincided with a rapid expansion of online means of expressing opinions.

We believe that this combination of factors has led to great advances, important debates, and greater inclusiveness in terms of who is able to participate in discussions about the state of the field and how to improve it. And yet on occasion, the tenor of these debates and discussions can (sometimes unintentionally) contribute to a corrosive atmosphere. Science needs vigorous debate, skepticism, and criticism, as difficult as these can be. However, science suffers when attacks become personal or individuals are targeted to the point of harassment. We are concerned that such behavior – on any side of a debate – can lead to a hostile environment. The majority of people on all sides of our debates endeavor to be constructive and to engage in discussions characterized by civility and mutual respect. Nevertheless when any of us veers from this kind of dialogue, it can lead people on all sides of the debate to feel fearful, intimidated, and/or pushed out of the conversation or the field.

Debates about our ideas, principles, and methods are going to continue – as they should. We need to do what we can to minimize the negative aspects of the climate that lead to name calling, personal attacks, and intimidation, while promoting and encouraging the positive aspects of the climate that lead to skeptical and critical discourse, productive discussions and debates, and a better, more self-correcting science.

In addition, when our own work or other work we care about is on the receiving end of scientific criticism, we must be careful not to misperceive that criticism as an attack or harassment. Many legitimate criticisms are difficult to hear when they are about work we are personally invested in. They can even have professional repercussions because scientists are judged on their work. Even in those cases, the freedom to express legitimate criticism must take priority and be protected. We must try our best to accept and learn from criticism, if we are to advance our shared goal of contributing to a cumulative and self-correcting science.

Also damaging to our scientific discourse are harassment and intimidation that happen through less visible channels. When people with a lot of influence use that influence to silence others (e.g., by using their leverage to apply pressure on the target or on third parties), and especially when they do so through nontransparent channels of communication, this harms our field. This behavior is especially harmful because it is often never brought to light, which means that there are no repercussions for the harasser and few means of recourse for the harassed. Even when it is brought to light, the status of the harasser often makes it difficult or impossible for others to take the risk of speaking out against it.

If we don't work toward the goal of promoting open, critical, civil, and inclusive scientific discourse, the diversity of voices and minds contributing to our science is threatened. We stand to lose smart and capable researchers at every level, from undergraduate students to full professors, and are especially likely to lose members of traditionally underrepresented groups. People at risk for leaving or avoiding our field include not only those who have experienced personal attacks, but also those who wish to engage in science and in scientific criticism without fear that they could be the next target of harassment.

By signing below, we are indicating not that we each agree wholeheartedly with every single sentence above, but with the broader goal articulated here: that our science needs to include both (a) disagreements and debates among scientists; and (b) a style of discourse that promotes a free marketplace of ideas and in which the primary cause of success in that marketplace is the strength of the ideas. Although it is not easily done, it is critical that we try to distinguish between appropriate scientific criticism and inappropriate harassment, and that we do what we can to protect the former and eradicate the latter. We acknowledge that making that distinction is not always easy, and we hope that the discussion of what is and is not helpful and appropriate will continue.

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