Terrorist Fiske Jab: On “Destructo-Criticism”

By Neuroskeptic | September 25, 2016 6:30 am


A draft article due to appear in APS Observer caused widespread outrage this week. Susan Fiske, the former president of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), writes that bloggers and other online critics of psychology papers are running wild:

New media (e.g., blogs, twitter, Facebook posts) are encouraging uncurated, unfiltered trash-talk. In the most extreme examples, online vigilantes are attacking individuals, their research programs, and their careers. Self-appointed data police are volunteering critiques of such personal ferocity and relentless frequency that they resemble a denial-of-service attack that crashes a website by sheer volume of traffic.

Fiske goes on to call critics “bullies”, “destructo-critics” and, most notoriously, practioners of “methodological terrorism.” She says that these offenders “destroy lives” because they “attack the person, not just the work” and that “our colleagues at all career stages are leaving the field because of the sheer adversarial viciousness.”

Now, many people have responded to Fiske’s piece already (see Andrew Gelman, Sam Schwarzkopf, and many more.) Many people are unhappy at the use of language such as ‘terrorism’ to describe people who are just posting their thoughts about papers online.

However, I want to take a different tack.

Let’s suppose that Fiske is right and that some individuals, while pretending to be discussing science, are actually engaged in the targeted personal harassment of particular scientists. If that’s the case, what should we do?

In my view, we should name names (or pseudonyms!): we should hold the offenders accountable with reference to specific examples of their attacks. After all, these people (Fiske says) are vicious bullies who are behaving in seriously unethical ways. If so, they deserve to be exposed.

Yet Fiske doesn’t do this. She says, “I am not naming names because ad hominem smear tactics are already damaging our field.” But it’s not an ad hominem smear to point to a case of bullying or harassment and say ‘this is wrong’. On the contrary, that would be standing up for decency. If terrorists really are among us, we need to know who they are.

Another reason why I think Fiske (and anyone else in a similar position) should name names is that it helps to draw boundaries. Fiske acknowledges that not all bloggers are bad: “Not all self-appointed critics behave unethically.” So who are the ethical ones? It would help to know some examples of the ‘good’ critics because we could then know where Fiske draws the boundary seperating good criticism from bad. As it stands, Fiske’s denouncations can easily be read as aimed at the vast majority of those who debate science online.

In summary, I want to know who Fiske is calling a “destructo-critic” so I can judge the accuracy of the label. Am I one?

  • http://sites.google.com/site/todorovicana/ Ana Todorovic

    Anonymous terrorists who could attack anyone, at any moment, for no good reason, of course makes the academic situation seem very precarious and terribly ominous.

    Her piece is so rewarding for bloggers – so many things to pick away at, it’s hard to decide where to begin.

    I took a stab at her piece as well, I hope it’s all right if I leave the link here? Feel free to erase my comment if not. I am saying we’ve already won, and there’s space for compassion for her point of view.


  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    Hmm. I see what the fuss is about now. I’ve been in the middle of this power struggle for years in my field. I’m an autodidact, non-academic, that none-the-less sometimes get published in peer-reviewed journals and is often critical of methods in academia on my blog.

    I have mixed relations with academics. One professor has been a mentor, editor, and regular publisher. He goes out of this way to help me with reaching the bar. By contrast I also meet with unceremoniously dismissal. One journal refuses to even discuss an article; I send it to my mentor and it gets enthusiastic reception, helpful reviews, and is published.

    Someone who is dependent on publication for their status in academia, professional advancement, and identity, is going to be concerned that some people are able to participate without any of the normative obligations and prohibitions. We are a real threat to them.

    If I denounce a researcher as a fraud (e.g. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/the-earliest-buddhist-shrine.html) then I do so with impunity. I got a lot of quiet plaudits for that one from academics who felt constrained from being able to say much the same thing. I’ll never apply for a job or tenure. The checks and balances of academia don’t apply to me. I might fail to get an article published because I have pissed off someone on the board. I’m sure this has happened more than once. It’s a bit vexing and some of the comments have been hurtful, but I usually get published eventually, so screw them.

    If I was an insider I’d be concerned about my reputation, or my career – about preserving future opportunities. I’d be constrained by the need for their approval. Not that they are obliged to give it. They have power and they wield it imperiously.

    “Destructo-critic” is a childish phrase. Critics are essential. Critics who are not beholden to the hegemony are even more valuable. But the hegemony find them threatening and respond with paranoiac viciousness. And that’s just one more reason that the mainstream needs to be destroyed.

    • Nick

      I tried to click the link to find out about your denouncement of someone as a fraud, but Blogspot said the page doesn’t exist. Typo in the URL, or have “they” caught up with you? :-)

    • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

      And again hmm. Having read the Business Insider interview with Fiske this morning and the blog post by Andrew Gelman. I tweeted @neurosceptic that I thought Fiske had a point and that Gelman’s blog post contained at the very least uncharitable speculation about Fiske’s motivation (which *is* ad hominen argumentation). These attacks are highlighted in the BI interview. Letzer, previously critical of Fiske, wrote:

      “[Gelman] maintained that Fiske exists within a “dead paradigm” of statistically problematic psychology, and that her incentive is to deny systemic problems in order to protect her position in the research establishment.”

      FFS people – when did this become an acceptable standard of scholarly discourse? No one who responded to the issue that I’ve seen took Gelman to task about his personal attacks on Fiske. Fucking cowards.

      My tweet attracted some attention. I might usually expect 3 or 4 notifications when I check twitter, suddenly it’s many more. Several people joined in on the anti-Fiske side. Some bloggers were confused about whether Fiske intended them. To which I replied “did you conjecture uncharitably about Fiske’s motivations? If so, the cap fits”. Common guys, you know who you are. I might also have asked, did you blow a minor statistical error out of all proportion for rhetorical purposes. Because that’s what Gelman did, according to Fiske’s response.

      While it wasn’t exactly a Twitter storm, I did get the sense of a gang of scholars unwilling to entertain my view.

      I pointed out that Fiske is a woman. Every day I read how women are attacked in social media; how women scientists struggle to be taken seriously; how women do not get respect, funding, or equal pay even. I’m not a feminist. But this treatment of women is appalling. Some of the women I most admire are constant targets for abusive comments from men. So yes, this is part of the issue. Men don’t like women speaking out.

      Fiske made a mistake referencing terrorism. It’s an understandable mistake because every idiot is doing it. But the fact is that prominent women are under almost constant attack on social media. Prominent women get threats on a daily basis. Threats of rape, violence, murder. That’s what a bolshie woman can expect when she speaks out in our society. Might that not seem like terrorism to the victims? Pick a woman you admire and scroll through the comments on her Twitter feed. Have a bucket handy. It’s disgusting.

      And how big does a blogger’s ego have to be to worried about whether it’s all about them?

      What I am not seeing is any attempt from anyone involved to cut this woman some slack and ask if she has any kind of point. The general demeanour is defensive and frankly paranoid (“does she mean me?”).

      Fiske was pressed to give and example and gave one. Clearly Gelman attacks her personally. In case you missed it, here are some selections:

      “Fiske is in the position of someone who owns stock in a failing enterprise, so no wonder she wants to talk it up.”

      “she’s a poor judge of social science research.”

      “The short story is that Cuddy, Norton, and Fiske made a bunch of data errors—which is too bad, but such things happen—and then when the errors were pointed out to them, they refused to reconsider anything.”

      – cf Fiske “He identified one correction to, basically, a sub-analysis. But the overall analysis was still intact. When this was pointed out to us, we issued a correction. But it didn’t change the conclusions of the paper, and the overall analysis was still significant.”

      “The issue is not Fiske’s data processing errors or her poor judgment [sic] as journal editor; rather, what’s relevant here is that she’s working within a dead paradigm. ”

      The list goes on. Where is there any *evidence* of Fiske being a bad editor? That slur comes out of nowhere! This is pretty grim stuff. And yet having given an example of the kind of stuff she has to put up with (and remember she’s saying she doesn’t have it bad and is speaking out for people who do), bloggers uniformly overlook this and attack Fiske? WTF? Either ad hominem is reprehensible or it isn’t. So is it? And if it is, where are the male bloggers slamming Gelman? I have yet to see @Neuroskeptic say anything about it. I’ve just asked him directly. Let’s see what happens!

      I said repeatedly today on Twitter that I have not seen @neurosceptic behave in this reprehensible way when he disagrees with someone. He conscientiously takes on ideas and never people. And he’s pretty generous in his criticism. Fiske may well have him in mind, but if she does she’s mistaken. @neurosceptic is not the type in my view. Gelman, on the other hand, is exactly the type.

      I started today disappointed and disenchanted with academia. I’ve ended the day disgusted with it.

  • Paul Matthews

    I’m not sure if you saw it, but Chris Chambers tweeted an open letter to Fiske making much the same point.

    “Dear Susan,

    Do Registered Reports fall into your category of “methodological terrorism”?

    Do I? Do my friends? Are we terrorists?”

    and more. For the whole thing, see


    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks! I hadn’t seen that

  • http://nonsignificance.blogspot.com non_sig


    I wonder if she (and others who think similarly) realize that their actions (also) (can) destroy lives and make people leave the field…..

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    It’s just dawned on me that this blog boils down to a complaint that Susan Fiske’s methodology was flawed.

    You’re doing it again!

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Read the 5 star reviews.

    Social Justice requires not the right answers, but instead the proper ones. Social Justice’s credible Room 101 is Social Justice.

  • John Samoylovich Pellman

    One point in Fiske’s defense is that her letter is in fact, a draft, and in some ways seems more akin to an angry internet comment where, rather than pressing ‘Submit’ instantly, she decided to hold off for a bit (perhaps to cool down). Unfortunately for her, the ‘Submit’ button self-clicked.

    That said, I can’t help but be slightly disappointed- I always enjoyed Fiske’s wit and humorous asides when I was reading her social psychology textbook in undergrad and it feels her writing talent wasn’t channeled constructively in this case (generally, characterizing anyone as a terrorist tends to end poorly).

  • John Samoylovich Pellman

    I’d also be interested in seeing more support for Fiske’s assertion that “graduate students [are] opting out of academia” directly because of the replication crisis. From my assessment of the state of affairs in science, graduate students are leaving academia less because of being told that they’re wrong about a result and more because:

    a) There aren’t enough positions for newly-trained trained PhDs (i.e., we’re living in the Malthusian era of the academy).
    b) For individuals with the right knowledge and skillset, industry jobs are much more lucrative (e.g., Uber’s recent grab of CMU’s robotics department; Google and Facebook’s poaching of machine learning and social network analysis experts). In some cases these jobs require little adjustment in terms of being able to pursue intrinsically interesting topics. For the cases where this is not true, the money can make up for it if it doesn’t infringe too much on one’s value system.
    c) Their career trajectories are increasingly being determined by factors beyond their control, such as research funding or decisions made unilaterally by their advisors (caveat: some advisors are very good about involving their students in major decisions and communicating with them regularly about the lab’s direction).

    Now, it could be said that having a result that fails to replicate might count as something beyond a researcher’s control (since statistically, failed replications are bound to happen even with well-established effects). It could affect one’s career by making funders less willing to award grants to that researcher since they are seen as a “high-risk” investment that is less likely to produce credible results. However, is this a problem with individuals willing to rightfully point out methodological issues, or a cultural and political problem, where the academic and political establishment has become extremely risk averse due to large numbers of researchers requesting money from a dwindling pot? It’s thus my opinion that Fiske is confusing correlation with causation in this case.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Psychology is macroeconomics without the math. When did macroeconomics ever work, idiot Marx through realist Galbraith to Grand Guignol Yellen? Hey there, “Frisky” Fiske, sometimes a cigar is an anthropogenic carbon emission – even though you are walking at the same time.

  • John C

    Simmer down nerds. This is like the time COMICON accidently booked the Star Trek and Star Wars seminars in the same conference room.

  • Денис Бурчаков

    Tovarisch Fiske reproduced the rhetoric tone very reminiscent of some mid-soviet science pogroms. Stalin would smile in his moustache.

  • Defenestrator

    She should get specific for the simple reason that her hyperbolic use of “terrorist” and “destroy lives” makes me really skeptical that there’s a legitimate and serious problem here, now I want to see for myself if there’s been a line crossed or if this is a case of academics who are used to handing out their brilliance from on high and are not used to being criticized.

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    Business insider has published an interview with Professor Fiske. Reading it I find I am persuaded that she has an important point that is not related to the replication crisis, but to the social media feeding frenzy.


    I think it’s clear that she does not mean you, Neuroskeptic. To the best of my knowledge you do not attack people, you do focus on ideas, and you are usually pretty generous when you disagree with someone.

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  • andrewkewley

    Seems like a simple tactic to deflect genuine criticism. Just accuse your critics of harassment.

    Yes some online criticism is just garbage, yet some criticism online is of very high quality. Just pretending it’s not there isn’t going to make it go away.

  • s klein

    Muddled thought from a(nother) muddled “thinker” in the psychological “sciences” (whose mantra is “we ARE a science because we use the scientific method [kinda], and method = science” — thus confusing the condition of necessity with that of sufficiency).

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  • ximpanze

    You say “it’s not an ad hominem smear to point to a case of bullying or harassment and say ‘this is wrong”. There are two things, however, that you should consider: First, maybe that, besides being a very competent professional and outstanding scholar, Ms. Fiske is a polite person as well; second, maybe Ms. Fiske knows that everyone in her field, whom she was addressing, is well aware of who these bullies are. So, why would she give them the prominence they so desperately long for?

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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