November 10, 2014
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On Bad Faith and Hoarding

Stacey Mason, too, is about ready to abandon hope. She offers a general guide on how to argue responsibly.

After months now of particularly draining online discussions conducted in bad faith I find myself lately ready to give up on the Internet.

Meanwhile, I gather some people were baffled by my remarks about knowledge hoarding.

If you know a lead reference that I should know, great: tell me what it is, and give me some idea of how to approach it.… It’s the basic obligation of the scientist: if you know something a colleague needs to know, you succinctly direct your colleague in the right direction.

In school, we learn lessons about deportment and manners and ethics, about sharing your toys and using your fork and doing your own work. As we approach questions of professional ethics and behavior, the instruction becomes more subtle. Some people ignore the lesson at each stage, of course, but I think sometimes people simply don’t receive the required instruction.

I raised a similar question a few years ago about conferences. When you attend a conference, I was taught that any other attendee is entitled to a share of your courteous attention; even (and perhaps especially) young people, students, unattractive people, and people who are unlikely to be of any immediate use to you. Lots of folks thought this absurd and weren’t shy of saying so.

In the sciences, you must never run around shouting, “I know something you don’t know, and I’m not going to tell you!” This is always bad manners, and if you persist it’s also a crime. The whole enterprise of science — that is, Science as an institution — rests on dissemination of knowledge: if you know that someone is making an error, believing a falsehood, or overlooking a vital facet of their problem, you cannot sit there silently. You can’t ignore it because it’s politically inconvenient, or because you like the other person, or because they’ll be angry with you. (If you’re not sure, that’s a gray area, but one must never pretend to be unsure.)

The needs of the proverbial Engineer are a litmus test here. If Professor Jane is making a mistake and you know it and remain silent, and someone designs a bridge that collapses because they relied on Prof. Jane’s result, you are greatly to blame. That you could not have expected this to relate to a bridge is no excuse, nor is the failure of bridges to have been invented when you failed to mention the error. The victims – your victims – will not excuse you because you didn’t actually know someone would someday build that bridge.

There’s also the milder but still stringent claim that the shared pursuit of knowledge imposes. Chaucer famously pins this in his 13th century Professor:

And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

The point here is not that teaching is a pleasant hobby or a remunerative and comfortable way to earn a nice salary; the point is that getting and sharing knowledge is reciprocal. Everything depends on this: if you have people hoarding knowledge, they aren’t scientists and they aren’t colleagues. They’re mystic wizards in their tower, the allies of myth and superstition and, for all the fun we have with tales of swords and sorcery, they’re always the Enemy.

This obligation is not universal, though I believe the world would be improved were it more broadly felt. We exempt artists because, often, they cannot share what they know. If you ask a chemist, “how did you make that cyclooctatetraene,” she can and should tell you, but we understand that asking Scott Prior, “How did you make Nanny and Rose?” or ask Jo Walton “how did you make Among Others?” the answer is bound to be very partial and inadequate. We also accept that in some walks of life, untruths, exaggerations, and deceptions are more or less acceptable. Politics ain’t beanbag, but when we’re doing research, these are crimes.

And, of course there are limits: life is short, people are busy. A reference or citation to the pertinent work is sufficient, and requires only seconds. If you cannot think of a reference — not even a lead reference — then you don’t know what you claim you know.

If you can provide a reference, and won’t? That’s a misdemeanor. It’s not a terrible crime, precisely, because you can remedy it so easily. And it’s the sort of lapse where your friends can (and should) rush in, covering your lapse and repairing your fault. “I think — correct me if I’m wrong — Mark is thinking of that paper from Chicago, by Perkins and Snodgrass. Or something like that.”

It happens. I’ve probably done it too. But it’s not something to be proud of.

I’ve received a certain amount of email on anonymity and trolls. People have written lots of articles and a few papers — hell, I did a keynote almost a decade ago and I didn’t start the fire — and while a number of correspondents sent interesting discussions of edge cases and boundary conditions, for which much thanks, there’s nothing resembling a persuasive counter-argument in my inbox, much left a disproof. And at this point I’ve heard from some pretty impressive scholars.)