A reader calling him- or herself “A Merry Clown” left a comment on my previous post which was so wise, I decided it had to be promoted to a post of its own.
Scientific discourse is the art of juggling decorum, truth and humor. A high-wire feat, attempted under imposing shadows cast by giants and above the distraction of merry dancing clowns.
The “appropriate” tone for scientific discourse seems to be:
(a) Cordial. Always credit others for their hard work and good intentions (allow or at least pretend that others are basically well-intentioned, except in rare situations where there is proof of egregious misconduct).
(b) Biting, merciless and hard-nosed on the substantive issues. The truth deserves no less.
Perhaps the harsher (b) is, the gentler and more thorough (a) should be. After-all, human beings are what they are.
Certainly, provided one adequately treads through the niceties in (a), there’s no reason to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings in (b). Anyone who makes scientific claims in a professional or public arena should be prepared to put on their big boy pants or their big girl pants and have their claims face the brutal gauntlet of scientific scrutiny. All attempts should be made to avoid even the appearance that any part of (b) contains personal barbs or insults (unless these barbs happen to be to be hilarious.)
Outside of science the rule is: whoever flings the horseshit the hardest wins.
Essentially, what Shtetl-Optimized readers got to see this past week was me falling off the high wire (with tenure the safety net below? ). I failed at a purely human level—though admittedly, while attempting a particularly difficult tightrope walk, and while heavily distracted by the taunts of both giants and clowns. I’ve already apologized to Cathy McGeoch for insulting her, but I reiterate my apology now, and I extend the apology to any colleagues at MIT who might have been offended by anything I said. I’ll strive, in future posts, to live up to a higher standard of cordiality, composure, and self-control.
At the scientific level—i.e., at level (b)—I stand by everything I wrote in the previous post and the comments therein.