Contrarian nation

I don’t know if we’ve always been this way, and social media is making it more obvious, but we seem to have become a nation of contrarians. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it can be counter-productive at time, and certainly breeds misdirected anger. This may not be news to anybody, but it feels new to me. I spent some time this weekend listening to a family member rant about a couple of things this weekend…things that the internet seems to be ranting about also. Why can’t men and women just use the “right” bathrooms? Why didn’t they shoot the kid instead of the gorilla? On the first one, it was pretty clear that this family member thought that trans women should use the women’s room, and that trans men should use the men’s room, and that it was just a gut reaction to be angry and argumentative for no good reason. The gorilla thing is an other story, that probably makes this feeling I have stronger.

For those who aren’t aware, there was a horrible incident in a Cincinnati zoo. A boy somehow fell into the gorilla enclosure and a gorilla was shot and killed in order to save the boy. The internet went berserk. People called it a senseless death. They second-guessed the choice to shoot the gorilla and in their infinite wisdom (with no zookeeping experience) decided that they could have saved the boy without hurting the gorilla. and much of the rage was focused on the mother of the child, a woman apparently named Michelle Gregg. There is a facebook page called “Investigate Michelle Gregg,” there is a post giving the name, phone number, and address of Gregg’s purported place of work. Other posts saying that the father has a criminal record. Lots of people offering uninformed, non-expert opinions, but what gets me the most is that the immediate response is to be contrarian. The immediate response isn’t:

Zookeepers become zookeepers because they love animals. People who love animals don’t want them to die unless necessary. Therefore, it must have been really necessary for them to kill the gorilla. They must not have felt they had any other options.

I don’t know, but that sounds a whole lot more reasonable to me. Not in contrarian nation though. In contrarian nation, the first response is “YOU WERE WRONG!”

I see this so much. I see it in so many debates and discussions. People criticize supporters of a particular party as being “sheep.” People embrace the term “independent” as if it implies that they think for themselves more than people who identify as democrats or republicans. Criticizing others seems to make people feel smarter, superior in some way.

It all reminds me of something I experienced in graduate school. In my graduate program (and in many graduate programs), we spent a lot of time reading and critiquing journal articles. Those who aren’t in science should know that, like the rest of the world, no published paper is perfect. There are always things that could have been done differently in the experiment, and there’s almost always a follow-up experiment that could have been included. From where I sit now, I believe it is a very useful exercise for several reasons: First, finding flaws in other people’s research makes it easier to find flaws in  our own approaches. Creating the critical mindset is part of what graduate school is all about (again, mostly so that the critical thinking can be directed at ourselves, to make our scholarship better). Second, it makes us all see that nothing is perfect, and it can always be done better. Striving for perfection is an important part of being a scientist, but none of us will ever achieve that, so it’s good to see that it’s OK to be imperfect. But, and here’s the but, the exercise tends to become a contest of who can be the most critical. Who can be the most demanding. Who can be the most contrarian. And we are rewarded for “winning” these contests. While a graduate student, I was at a scientific conference and did as I was trained: I looked at all of the science around me with a super critical eye. A scientist with a long and distinguished career was presenting work from her lab, and I saw a flaw. During the question part of the presentation, I raised the issue (I think in a kind way), and it called into question the findings. I was sitting next to another established scientist who praised my question, praised my training, and said something like, “you guys from Penn can always rip people to shreds so easily,” as if that was a good quality to have.

As I grew as a scientist, this sense completely changed, and I realized that being a critic was the easier part [I initially wrote “the easy part,” but that’s not fair, because it’s not easy, just easier]. It’s harder to edit a paragraph than it is to write the paragraph in the first pace. It’s easier to be a food critic than it is to create a dish that’s worth reviewing. It’s easier to sit back and talk about how badly some athlete played yesterday than it is to actually play the game. Yet, for those who can’t write the paragraph that’s worth editing, for those who can’t cook a dish that’s worthy of a food critic’s attention, for those who can’t play the game, being a critic provides a sense of superiority. It gives a sense of value. It’s fake value, and it ignores that the critic wouldn’t exist without something to criticize. But even for those who can’t write the paragraph, cook the meal, play the game, perform the experiment, I think it’s harder to see the importance of some work than it is to find the flaws. I can’t speak for writers, chefs, or athletes, but for a scientist, being a critic comes first, but once well-developed, something changes and we gain the skill of seeing how a finding has an impact on the field, on the world. How amazing it was that somebody thought to perform that experiment in the first place, and all the work that went into getting it done, even though it wasn’t perfect. Seeing how the pieces come together to form a comprehensive explanation of something, and how each little piece of the puzzle fits together. That’s the sign that the training has worked well.

Watching this training unfold in others makes it clear to me why those with less training in some fields are more likely to be critics of those fields. The more people know about evolution, the more likely they are to see the overwhelming evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. It is people with less training who are the first to jump up and say that we don’t get it because we don’t even use our whole brains. It gives the sense that we become indoctrinated, falling into line with the powers that be in our fields, and lose our independent thinking, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The illusion of compliance is really what comes from a full understanding of all of the work that led us to this place and time. That doesn’t mean that we can’t see a path forward that might make us look back and see flaws, but with a shallow understanding, it can look like blind obedience.

That said, I think it’s important for people to think critically. I think it’s important for people to challenge assumptions. But I think it’s more important for this to be directed inward than outward. That’s not what I see. I wish it were. (Says the guy who just wrote a whole essay criticizing people for being critical…)

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