trial by fire

Bharathi Jagadeesh bjag at ln.nimh.nih.gov
Fri Jul 10 01:00:40 EST 1998


It's great to see the board active again!

And, Susan, please don't go and beat your graduate students -- seek help
instead. 1-800-MENTOR-ANON (Ok, too many digits).  

:-)

Here's my view on the training/criticism scale:

1) Harsh criticism because it makes me feel good to show that I'm better
than you.

2) Harsh criticism (sometimes personal) because you have to learn to
face it.

3) Strong criticism because the scientific idea is flawed. This includes
criticism with poor interpersonal style -- like this idea is
embarrasingly stupid, how could you possibly think that. But it should
be followed up with examples, though the receiver of the criticism might
have to ask for it. 

4) Strong criticism delivered constructively, without any antagonism. 

5) Criticism, but always paired with a compliment. This reminds me of
the story about how pledges were chosen at a sorority a friend told me
about. Before making a critical comment you had to say something nice
about the pledge. This is like saying "wow your slides are beautiful."
But the data is identical to that published last year in PNAS. 

6) Criticism delivered so kindly that the person receiving it isn't sure
whether the comment was criticism or a compliment

7) No criticism at all, because, aren't all ideas equal anyway?


I think that all of these except #1 have a place to play in science and
in mentoring. #2 has to be delivered in the context of trust, or it
becomes #1. 

But #3, strong criticism, freely delivered, sometimes ugly, is what
science is about. It's part of the debate, and I _like_ it. It bothers
me when people are worried about treading on toes (either their
subordinates, or their supervisors) that they can't clearly say what
they think about the ideas, experiments, data under discussion. I fear
that science is going in this direction, of people being afraid to say
what they think. And the whole scientific enterprise breaks apart when
people have to be too careful in saying what they think. 

There was even an editorial in the Scientist, I think, recently, by an
editor of the "Current Opinion" series saying that she's worried that
the strongness of the ideas and discourse in Current Opinion has
decreased because people are fearful of voicing strong opinions. But
strong opinions are what science is all about!

Bharathi



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