Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dangerous Ideas

Years ago at a conference, someone told a colleague and me that our ideas were "dangerous". A danger how? And to whom? He didn't say, but in fact it was obvious that our ideas posed a danger only to those who didn't like them or who had published ideas to the contrary. Our research was of the most basic, curiosity-driven, no- animals-killed-to-produce-this-product sort. For my colleague and me, the statement "Your ideas are dangerous" has become a favorite phrase, brought out at random times for a laugh.

So I almost laughed out loud at a recent conference when a cranky old scientist took issue with a grad student's talk and told him that his ideas were "dangerous". The student looked upset, so it would have been quite inappropriate for me to laugh at that moment. In fact, compared to the comments that the Angry Scientist typically makes, the student got off easy.

I went to find to the student during a break and told him that I really liked his talk and his dataset and his interpretations. He had picked up on a strand of a project that I had left dangling years ago, never having the time or funding for that particular thing to pursue the topic. I was really pleased to see these new results, which were interesting and a bit unexpected, and therefore exciting.

He cheered up considerably and we had a good discussion about his work, but at some point the student looked over at the Angry Scientist and his gloom returned. He said "But he hates my research" and I said "Yes, but that's how I know you must be right!".

I told him that there is nothing wrong with having dangerous ideas. In fact, it's a compliment. It means you are making people think, and it gives us all something to talk about. His ideas had been presented in a very professional way and were completely appropriate based on his dataset and analysis.

The statement that an idea is dangerous, in which the only possible danger is to someone's ego, is an absurd attempt at criticism. I will, however, stop short of recommending that this phrase be expunged from the Conference-goers Phrasebook for Rude Things to Say After Someone Else's Talk because, in this context, it may be better to be criticized by someone who has nothing of substance to say than to encounter an articulate, hostile person.

23 comments:

Ms.PhD said...

I told him that there is nothing wrong with having dangerous ideas.I hate to disagree, but the harsh reality is that it's nearly impossible to publish these kinds of things, much less get them funded. Maybe it's okay for a protected grad student, particularly if their PI (and you) are going to support him when the going gets tough.

But I wouldn't recommend it- eventually he will meet someone articulate and hostile, if not at a conference then anonymously, as a reviewer on the manuscript. Then the fun starts.

Thomas Joseph said...

... then anonymously, as a reviewer on the manuscript.That's why there is typically more than a couple of reviewers on manuscripts, so one wack-a-loon can't muck up the entire process. If you only go with the status quo, and publish what you think people will accept, I doubt you'll go very far or do anything more than moderately exciting.

Prof-like Substance said...

Sorry, but I'm going to have to disagree with Ms.PHD here. Is it tougher to publish new and unexpected ideas? Yes. But they are the foundation for subsequent work in a field and without them science would whither and die. One may encounter hostility to these ideas, but the pay-off for fighting them through the system can be huge and is essential for science to move forward. If all we ever do is pursue the "safe" questions, we are doing no service to ourselves or our field.

Odyssey said...

I hate to disagree, but the harsh reality is that it's nearly impossible to publish these kinds of things, much less get them funded. Maybe it's okay for a protected grad student, particularly if their PI (and you) are going to support him when the going gets tough.

But I wouldn't recommend it- eventually he will meet someone articulate and hostile, if not at a conference then anonymously, as a reviewer on the manuscript. Then the fun starts.
Nonsense. "Dangerous" ideas might be more difficult to publish or get funded, but it's far, far from impossible. As FSP notes, the dangerous ideas are often the correct ones, the ones that advance the field. Advocating that we don't encourage dangerous ideas* is advocating for the demise of science.

Science is full of articulate and seemingly hostile people.** You either learn to deal with them or you're in the wrong profession.



* At any level, especially with trainees.
** Passion is often mistakenly taken as hostility.

John V said...

I'm missing the point of most of the comments here. What is meant by dangerous? From the context, undermining other people's research conclusions, competently presented, and possibly right.

FSP's examples, in perspective, would be fodder for laughter, as she relates. It reminds me of the insult of Mozart "too many notes". If that is the best counter-argument available, the speakers are home free. If youngsters need help putting hollow criticism in perspective from FSP and their other friends, so be it.

Implications for funding are few. Dangerous ideas are not guaranteed of funding, but nothing is these days. More promising to have dangerous ideas than boring ideas, however, they'd better be right. At least not immediately demonstrably wrong, as are most of the ideas I hear described as edgy and unfairly criticized.

Comrade Physioprof said...

That kind of shit is disgraceful. Even worse is "I don't buy these data".

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that "dangerous" means "dangerous to my funding". That, as other commentators have mentioned, brings politics in. Still, this is science, and the more correct idea can be expected to win eventually.

If the people endangered have swing you may want to tackle them in baby steps, each one well supported and unimpeachable. Know their positions. Anticipate their questions. Have backup slides aimed right them.

Nothing shuts down a loudmouth like "I thought someone would ask that, let me show you what we did..."

yolio said...

"The student looked upset, so it would have been quite inappropriate for me to laugh at that moment. "

I think it would have been HIGH-LARE-IUS if you had laughed at this moment.

Candid Engineer said...

Good story. I'm glad you took the time to encourage the student. It is tough as a young and impressionable student to have bigwigs say junky (if not untrue) things about your work.

fia said...

I've been told once that the moment where people tell you your ideas are "dangerous" or your results are "impossible" is when you really have some great science in your hands. This happened to me, and, I insisted and stuck with the problem, solving it by finding more than sufficient support for the ideas. It actually turned out to be the best part of my thesis, and people who were calling it dangerous, or, worse "stupid" now congratulate me. ;-P

Curt F. said...

I'm with John V. here. The problem is that by itself, "dangerous" is useless word for criticizing an idea. Some so-called "dangerous" ideas may be useless, flawed, or unproductive. Some may be earth-shatteringly important. If a criticism of an idea amounts to saying only that the idea is dangerous, the criticism should not be taken seriously.

I'm trying to think of an equally vacuous criticism that has positive, rather than negative, connotations. "Criticisms" of ideas that say only that an idea is "provocative" or "interesting" should probably not be taken very seriously either.

The key word here is "only".

tig said...

I'm with Prof-like Substance on this one - we need dangerous ideas to break the moulds. If we don't break the moulds, we just keep running over old ground again and again and will never make any REAL progress.

Publishing "dangerous" ideas might be difficult but then so is publishing tired old crap that just backs up the data of others and is of the "nice data but so what?" school of manuscript. What's the point in publishing stacks of "our data match those published previously [1-345635]" papers? Ok, yes, it's nice and comforting doing that kind of research but is it advancing our knowledge of anything? Nope.

tig

Anonymous said...

This is off topic but I do animal research, and it is not Dangerous either. So I'm slightly offended by your opening words, because a lot of science incorporates animals and is still not full of "dangerous" ideas!

John V said...

The only example of dangerous as a potentially valid criticism in my field is with regard to public perceptions.

If one muddies the waters with needless controversy, public confidence in applications of science can be undermined, or worse, politicians can make political hay to ignore firmly grounded consensus when it is inconvenient.

It is never dangerous to re-examine old work to see whether it was sound.

DrDoyenne said...

I also don't understand the meaning of "dangerous". Perhaps the Angry Scientist actually meant "controversial" (and possibly difficult to get published) or that the idea might be used inappropriately by some special-interest group.

Did the Angry Scientist explain his comment?

Jackie M. said...

I suppose it's possible that a commenter could mean: "dangerous to the presenter's career."

And on a completely unrelated note, where do you get your graph paper shirts? My favorite lands end short sleeve graph paper shirt has finally given up the ghost, just in time for the start of summer weather. And while I do need women's tailoring, I'm disheartened by the usual selection of female colors (pink, pink with white stripes, coral, inoffensive baby blue). Do you have any recommendations for non-pink academic chic?

Isabel said...

I am also wondering about the meaning of "dangerous" and the context in which it was used. It was a bit frustrating to read this thread with not a single example, but continued confirmation that this gets said...I can't imagine why, except the example John gave.

The other would be the toppling of previous ideas - It's just that I can't imagine someone actually saying the word 'dangerous' even if they are worried about the rug being pulled out from under them. It seems they'd be more likely to insist the ideas/data have no merit for some reason or other, or mock them...saying it's 'dangerous' almost automatically gives the ideas weight...

female Science Professor said...

I don't have the answer. My best guess is that the Angry Scientist didn't like the student's research results but didn't have any substantive criticism. He was basically saying "You shouldn't think like that" (because I don't like it).

John V said...

I thought FSP's post was entertaining precisely because the epithet "dangerous" was so inappropriate, and so it is not surprising that none of us have similar anecdotes. FSP said at the end the comment was absurd.

Along the lines of inappropriate behavior, the worst I've witnessed was when an MIT prof and another eminence gris somehow got into a shouting match at the annual national meeting along the lines of "you're screwing me!" with the reply "then bend over further". Alarming if not dangerous.

Anonymous said...

dangerous ideas in physics?? unless you are talking about making another atom bomb...?? oh brother....

Narya said...

When I was in grad school, I always thought I'd done a good job when I presented something and I started a good healthy fight.

Anonymous said...

"dangerous idea" = idea that if correct will fundamentally change some aspect of the science in question (and possibly dethrone otherwise very "comfortable" leaders in the field) and for which there is new and suggestive, but possibly not conclusive evidence.

In other words, it means "exciting idea."

I'm a young grad student who is working on an exciting idea, so this hit home. I'm glad there are people like FSP to encourage people in my situation!

chemprof said...

Good on you for encouraging this student. If we're not trying to push the boundaries and be innovative, then we're not doing the right thing as scientists.