Monday, February 15, 2021

The Time for Criticism is Now

We recently read Hardeman & Karbeah (2020), Examining racism in health services research: A disciplinary self-critique, in our weekly Diversity Science Reading Group. The attendees, which primarily consist of graduate students and post-docs, expressed appreciation for the self-reflective and self-critical approach, feeling that we need more of that in psychology. The conversation, however, quickly turned to the question of when in one’s career is it acceptable to engage in work that is critical of the field? It is clear that some of them have received the message (implicitly or explicitly) that criticism of ideas and practices is to be conducted later in one’s career, after becoming “established.” I quickly told them that this is nonsense. The time for criticism is now.  

Those who hold power in a discipline benefit from the idea that one must wait to engage in serious critique. Graduate students and those otherwise new to the field often have the ability to see things as they truly are. They have not yet been socialized to accept standard ways of thinking about or doing science. Practices that don’t make sense are seen as exactly that, but the system makes them believe that they just don’t yet understand, and that with more mentoring and experience they will learn the benefits of doing things in the accepted way. Moreover, as many others have pointed out, the system is set up as a treadmill of waiting, always moving the goalposts for when critique can start to the next milestone ahead. I will act once I finish my Ph.D., once I get a job, once I get tenure, once I make full professor. By time you make full professor your career has been built on the existing system and you have no incentive or motivation to change. This is how the system maintains itself.

The time for criticism is now. We desperately need the new voices and perspectives. The way we are doing our science is not ok, and even if we thought it was, we still need self-critique. We always need it. I recently gave a talk at the meeting for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in which I heavily critiqued the strong focus on experiments in the field [video] [preprint]. Several people, publicly and privately, told me I was “brave” for giving such a critical talk to the core audience that needed to hear it. Of course I understand where this sentiment is coming from, but it really shouldn’t be this way. It should not be brave to be critical of our methods and theories. It should be our standard practice. The way we do our science is not natural or predetermined, it is a choice among many alternatives, and thus that choice should always be under scrutiny.

At this point I know exactly what you are thinking: graduate students and early career researchers who are critical will face retaliation from senior people in the field. As Hilda Bastian wrote about retaliation (in the context of signing peer reviews), “We shouldn’t let this be the end of a discussion. It should be the start of several more.” I agree strongly with Dr. Bastian that we cannot all live in fear of retaliation from those protecting themselves and the system. Retaliation is anti-social and is scientific misconduct. Those engaging in it should live in fear from the rest of us. If you hear about retaliation, call it out, let it be known who is engaging in this abhorrent behavior. Constantly pointing to the possibility of retaliation as a reason not to engage in a scientific practice is de facto acceptance of the retaliatory behavior. [Edited 2/16/21 to add: None of the above is to suggest that retaliation does not occur or is not harmful. It it does, and it is, and can be especially damaging to people from marginalized groups. My point is that we can both be aware of this aspect of the system and seek to change it.]

How to approach being critical is complex, to be sure. I can be flippant, and at times even disrespectful. Some might see this as inappropriate—especially in academia amidst so many fragile egos—but I err on that side because it is often what people need to shake out of their rut and see that the way they do things is not necessarily right. You need to find your own critical voice, your approach to how you want to critical, but you need to do it. The time for criticism is now.