Public comments considered harmful

by Fred Ross Last updated: January 29, 2013

Around the time I left academia, I wrote a rant saying what I thought of bioinformatics. I send it around to my old national consortium in Switzerland, which was used to receiving my rants. My rant was well received. A number of my colleagues have been referring people to it over the last nine months or so. How do I know? These are friends of mine and we chat.

Then, Friday morning, one of my pals from Switzerland messaged me, saying that someone had posted it to reddit's bioinformatics subgroup, asking what people think about it. It was the first item for a couple days.

From there it went to Hacker News and sat at the top of the front page for hours. Other fora picked it up. I got emails from their moderators asking me to come take part in the discussion, and I lots of email from people who just wanted to talk to me directly.

If you look at the fora, you will see lots of negative comments. I didn't get a single negative email. This struck me as strange, so I went back and counted up all the positive, negative, and neutral comments and emails.

SentimentEmailredditHacker News BiostarsHubski
Positive20 1 21 0 2

The three neutral email were two people inviting me to take part in discussions (which is how I found the discussions on Biostars and Hubski), and one which contained only the line "sent from my iPad". The neutral comments on forums were largely side discussion. Interestingly, the mixed or primarily programming fora (Hacker News and Hubski) had about equal numbers of positive and negative comments. The bioinformatics specific fora (BioStars and the reddit subgroup) were very negative.

The negatives all followed certain themes. Many were ad hominems: "From looking into this guy a bit (who I've never heard of before today in my 10+ years in the field) does not appear that he completed his PhD after several years of work"; "Sounds like a fed up academic with a stick up his backside." There were lots of implications that I didn't know biology, didn't know the state of programming in the non-academic world, didn't know bioinformatics, etc.

A number were strawmen. One did try to claim I was wrong based on my own words ("There are only two computationally difficult problems in bioinformatics, sequence alignment and phylogenetic tree construction."), but when asked for another, all he could offer was genome assembly, which is a special case of sequence alignment. One amusing strawman took umbrage with my use of the word "ept", claiming it didn't exist. Someone did eventually post the reference to the OED entry.

Others took issue with my tone, saying that it was unacceptable to address people this way, but there was no substantive criticism in public, and no criticism at all in private. That means these people weren't concerned that I was wrong, or at least had no stomach to send me a criticism without some kind of public setting where they would be part of a group. Indeed, the original poster on reddit, who was worried as he was about to start a PhD in bioinformatics, didn't receive an actual answer.1

There's a name for this in circles that study human behavior: group monkey dance. You should follow that link and read Rory's article on it, and probably Rory's books, too, but here's a quick summary: human violence follows patterns. Most fist fights occur in the same way. Married couples will have the same arguments year after year. And social groups will turn on an outsider or perceived betrayer with a brutality that most of the group members would never display individually.

In this setting, a group monkey dance would have emotional outbursts against the transgressor (me), with repeated themes and short on rational argument, which is exactly what we find. Most of these people are folks I could sit down with an have a sensible conversation about bioinformatics. However, I attacked the group which they have made a part of their identity and triggered a group monkey dance.

So what has this whole debacle taught me is that public comment fora encourage group monkey dances, and thus reduce the quality of the discourse on the Internet. For the moment I am setting a policy for myself: I am not participating in public, unmoderated fora. I encourage everyone else to do likewise.

1 I tried to send him something useful by private message, which I'll reproduce here for anyone else who may be similarly disturbed:
Hi, I'm the author of the piece. A colleague of mine still in the field pointed out that someone had posted it to reddit. I have no intention of engaging with the comment thread, but I thought I'd drop you a private message. If you notice, no one provided any substantive criticism of what I said, no refutation of my points. There were a few strawmen, a few ad hominems, but no one addressed my actual words. If they're words that would make you want to not do a PhD, then you need to address that. Figure out what the parts are that unsettle you (aside from the tone, which was intentionally strident), and go independently find an answer for yourself. The exercise will, at the very least, give you a useful overview of some of biology. (As a similar exercise, try writing a history of the future of the field over the next 50 years.) Whether you decide to do your PhD or not, this is useful. If it leads you to do something else--and you should plan on what you're going to do when you leave academia, since the data says you will, like almost everyone else--fine. If it leads you to do your PhD, you'll have a perspective that you can use to choose what you'll specialize in, as opposed to randomly fall into it. If you do the PhD, though, I warn you: use the perspective to cut areas out that don't interest you, but choose based on the professor. Your advisor, whether you trust his scientific taste, his personality, and his skill as a mentor, should be almost the only criterion in your selection of your research in a PhD. Look at his students. Are they happy, healthy, making progress? Do they respect him? What about his former students? Good luck to you either way.