Lessons in Conversation from the Academy

Jan 18, 2018 | Conversation

The academic world can be a vicious place. You might imagine universities and research institutions to be places of vigorous yet civil discourse, where provocative, cutting-edge opinions are discussed in a welcoming spirit that acknowledges that disagreement for the sake of growth and knowledge is the essence of the dialogue at hand. Sometimes that is true. Sometimes, however, it is a thin veneer that swiftly disintegrates to reveal the internecine conflict and antagonism.

Over the holidays I re-read the October 18, 2017 New York Times magazine article, When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy written by Susan Dominus. Cuddy is the social psychologist best known to the public for her work on body language, especially the effects of “power poses.” The article’s main thrust was about how the academy conducts and is incentivized to conduct research, and how that research is evaluated, peer reviewed and discussed publicly. What I noticed, however, was the inadequacy of how various of the players in this tragedy conversationally engaged with each other and with their broader audiences. Take this observation in Dominus’s piece:

“‘I regret it,’ Simonsohn says now about posting the emails. Since then, Simmons, Simonsohn and Nelson say they have given a lot of thought to codes of conduct for communicating responsibly when conveying concerns about a scientist’s work. But the academic blowup between Simonsohn, then a relative unknown in social psychology, and Schwarz, the standard-bearer, signaled from the beginning that leaders on each side would ignore the norms of scientific discourse in an effort to discredit the other. One imminent shift in methods would bring another shift — one of tone — that would affect the field almost as drastically.”

The incidents reflected in this tale contain other valuable lessons, such as how our fear of difficult conversations prompts us to act in unhelpful ways:

“Cuddy has asked herself what motivates Gelman. ‘Why not help social psychologists instead of attacking them on your blog?’ she wondered aloud to me. ‘Why not come to a conference or hold a seminar?’ When I asked Gelman if he would ever consider meeting with Cuddy to hash out their differences, he seemed put off by the idea of trying to persuade her, in person, that there were flaws in her work. ‘I don’t like interpersonal conflict,’ he said.”

Our anxiety about difficult conversations induces us towards less productive and more opaque means of communication, such as email, and these forums breed misunderstanding:

“But the email that Simmons and Simonsohn had sent was, in fact, ambiguous: They had explicitly told her to drop the P-curve and yet left the impression that the paper was otherwise sound. At my request, Simmons looked back at his original email. I watched as he read it over. ‘Oh, yeah,’ he said quietly. He had a pained look on his face. ‘We did say to drop the graph, didn’t we? He read it over again, then sat back. ‘I didn’t remember that. This may be a big misunderstanding about — that email is too polite.’”

“Cuddy and Carney had taken their advice literally. Simmons stood by his analysis but recognized that there was confusion at play in how they interpreted the events that transpired. Simmons says he harbored no ill will toward Cuddy before criticizing her paper; if anything, he remembered her warmly. ‘She was great,’ he said, smiling at the memory. ‘We published the blog post despite my history with Amy. Because I realized that once we pulled the trigger on this. … ’ He did not finish the sentence. Cuddy had, in fact, become the poster girl for this kind of work, which even he thought was not fair. ‘The original study wasn’t particularly egregious,’ he said. ‘It was published in 2010 before anyone was thinking about this.’”

For a moment, the scientist allowed the human element to factor into how he felt about his email response to that paper. ‘I wish,’ he said, ‘I’d had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call Amy.’

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