Rudeness vs. science?

March 30, 2007

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Cosmic Variance on what constitutes a scientific archnemesis. In the ensuing discussion however, an interesting side topic arose: does blatant rudeness –a common accompanying trait along with numerous other unfortunate qualities of an archnemesis– violate the norms of scientific conduct? As the discussion at CV indicates, not all scientists think that flagrant and intentional harshness in discourse steps outside the bounds of what science is. And I think I actually agree with that. Rudeness might be unnecessary and even counterproductive, but it can often have a sobering effect as well, acting as the veritable “kick in the pants.” Probably the most famous example of this, in physics at least, is Wolfgang Pauli’s infamous remark that some such proposal was “not even wrong.” The individual at whom this attack was directed may have thought of it as an unjustified personal attack on their intelligence. There is however another interpretation, which the Wikipedia article points out. Something could be said to be not even wrong in the sense that it does not rise to the level of falsifiability and is therefore not a scientific hypothesis. So at least some of what one might call rude can also be useful as it acts as a wake-up call. Furthermore many people use combative language simply as a provocation, so as to stimulate/instigate discussion. After all, healthy competition often leads to some of the best work. There is also of course the really nasty, hurtful kind of rudeness that serves no purpose other than to make you feel tiny and distract you from real work. This is certainly an impediment to science, but I don’t think it’s more than that.

To really address the question though we’d need to spend some time really problemetizing “rudeness” and “science” to see if they actually are in conflict, but at first glance they don’t seem to be. This really seems like a problem best addressed by philosophers or anthropologists, but I think a lot of what constitutes rudeness comes about from a fundamental lack of congruence in what the expected social norms are. So while rudeness may be personally unpalatable, I don’t think it’s in direct conflict with actually carrying out one’s job.

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