Which brings us to Moscow Rules number 8.
Don’t harass the opposition.
They say you can judge a person by the quality of the opposition. It is no coincidence that best heroes have the best rogue’s galleries. But while we do love a tussle, we also separate our heroes and villains by how they treat the opposition. John Steed defeated his foes with and umbrella, bowler hat, and his wits. No need for clumsy brute force.
A real world example can be found in the arsenic life story. When Rosie Redfield posted her criticisms of the pre-print, a substantial amount of discussion was not about whether the criticisms were in any way flawed, but about decorum and “This sort of language would never be allowed in a peer reviewed journal. Not cricket, wot.” Personally, I thought those objections were overblown, but it shows that people do care about the way criticisms are delivered.
I have two short tips for when you have to criticise someone’s science.
First, always stick to the evidence. It’s not about the person or people, and in particular, it isn’t about you. There are a lot of people in science (and geek culture more generally) who have this great desire to prove just how smart they are. They can’t resist correcting a mistake - and getting in a little dig at the same time. Maybe there are lingering feelings of inadequacy from high school, or maybe they just got rewarded so often for being right that they just can’t pass up the opportunity to have the last word. People can so busy trying to show how clever they are that they overlook how harsh their criticisms can sound.
Second, while criticism is great, you will look even better every time you suggest a positive alternative along with your criticism. If you’re not convinced by the experiment someone did, it is helpful to spell out what you think would convince you. If you think a manuscript is badly written, pick out some of the typos, or suggest rewording.
If I might move from from spies to samurai for a moment, I like this description of the bushido virtue of polite courtesy (礼; rei) (from The Last Samurai DVD):
Samurai have no reason to be cruel. They do not need to prove their strength. A samurai is courteous even to his enemies. Without this outward show of respect, we are nothing more than animals.
Scientists have no reason to be cruel, either.
One of Dr. Becca’s all time great posts, on her science enemy. Must read hilarity. The ruler story alone is worth the price of admission. This brought equally awesome responses from DrugMonkey and Scicurious.