bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

When was the last time you were wrong?

Seriously, I want you to ask yourself the question. More importantly, when was the last time you admitted it?

I’ll go first – I was wrong to attack Graur over his snark.  I still don’t agree with the way he went about things, and I never will, but as @johnomics has pointed out, I am partial to a bit of snark myself.  My defence is that I limit it to twitter and this blog, and I would never use it in peer review or in peer reviewed articles.  But is that really a good defence?

How about you? When did you last admit you were wrong?

I have a feeling that academic scientific research breeds people who struggle with it, to be honest.  In no other job do people pour their heart and soul into something, only to have it ripped apart by anonymous “experts” who, occasionally, we are not even allowed to engage with.   We are certainly not allowed to know their identity, as they snipe from behind a wall, free to say whatever they please with no threat of sanction.

OK, maybe the music and film industry is similar – and we all know what kind of egos they breed 😉

Unless we are extremely lucky/good, after months of work, our papers and grants are subject to close scrutiny and severe criticism.  This immediately puts us on the defensive, and we engage in a lengthy discussion.  We defend our work, and if we defend something, we must believe in it, right?  These beliefs can be pretty toxic, because inevitably some of the criticism will be valid.  Not everything we have said will be right, but we are forced into the position where we defend it as if it was.

When the grant gets funded, or the work published, we feel vindicated – it turns out we were right all along, doesn’t it?

Now imagine you’ve been doing this for 30 years, you sit on grant panels and you edit journals, your opinion is sought often to peer review articles of the highest importance.  People hang on your every word.  Journals seek you out to provide opinion pieces and reviews. You’ve written books, and 100s of scientific articles.

When was the last time the person above admitted they were wrong?

Im sure you take my point.  Although you may disagree with it because, of course – I could be wrong 🙂


  1. When being right, or more precisely being perceived as being right (not quite the same thing), has such important repercussions for career trajectory, it’s no wonder many of us will never admit to being wrong. Hardly a good career move and not liable to garner the brownie points.

    Also researchers are fragile beasts: our egos constantly buffeted by the slings and arrows of outrageous peer-reviewed fortune and as a consequent we get, well, how can I say this… we get a bit aggressive in our rightness to the point of arrogance with a side-order of pomposity.

    It’s a defensive measure of course: don’t stand down, be aggressively forthright, refuse to counter dissent, and if all else fails sulk impressively – these are all ways to shore up one’s postion (well, maybe not the sulking) in an environment where knowledge, perceived or real, is not only power but also status and ultimately tenured security. And once you’ve got into the habit…

  2. Er, I was totally wrong, last night, to attack you the way that I did. I perceived mild hypocrisy and got excessively pissed off, unfairly and unjustifiably. Actually, your response about people putting their heart and soul into their papers changed my mind somewhat – certainly I think it’s consistent to criticise peer-reviewed snark and continue LOLing elsewhere, given that perspective. But bubbling under this is my own personal fear about contributing online; I’m scared to post things because of the often cynical and harsh atmosphere. The irony of me addressing this through angry tweets is not lost on me. I was mortified this morning; apologies.

    You were right on Graur, anyway; I think a lot of the criticism on your post was because most people consider ENCODE’s functional wrongness to be greater than Graur’s tonal wrongness, and it’s the functional claim we should be focussing on. Having looked up a few of Graur’s other publications (try http://nsm.uh.edu/~dgraur/ArticlesPDFs/downwithanimallib.pdf or http://nsm.uh.edu/~dgraur/ArticlesPDFs/positively%20discriminating.pdf), I’m not so sure. There’s a big difference between a directed bit of sarcasm for a purpose and a general default sarcasm.

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