As researchers, we are used to having our peers challenge our research and ask questions. It’s part of the scientific process that we hold so dear. But sometimes, our research results can generate unexpected outcomes that run counter to public or political opinion, resulting in personal attacks that are not based on the facts.
If you ever find your research is being attacked because of political views people have attributed to it, you may be unsure how or even whether to respond. Before you do anything, it might be helpful to consider the reason for the attacks.
A 2011 study on politics and social science research reports that ideas play into politics, and those ideas tend to shape people’s reactions to facts more than the actual research does. While people have their own reasons for consulting available research findings, their acceptance of the research has less to do with the actual research results than the message they want to convey. They may attack findings so they can continue to communicate their own messages.
According to a 2015 Pew study, many more people hold positions on issues that are strictly liberal or conservative today than they did two decades ago, which suggests that your research might not just come up against political-minded people in the policy world. The general public may attack your findings, too, if those findings go against what they believe.
This is why Dr. Susan Courtney, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, makes sure her students know that criticism from the public is part of the scientific process. “I try to prep my students from the very beginning of the research planning process to anticipate potential criticisms of the work so that they have already prepared answers when the expected criticism arrives,” she says.
So, should you find your research has become a part of a political debate, Courtney advises not to take it personally, but to respond professionally, only focusing on the scientific issues. Make sure you are very familiar with related literature, so that you can openly acknowledge alternative interpretations of the data, but also effectively defend your study and your results.
The OHSU School of Medicine offers curricula specifically designed to help researchers respond to feedback in a constructive manner, both orally and in written venues. It also has journal clubs that provide students with experience in responding to feedback on research, and seminar classes that often include mentoring on how to answer questions live.
If the feedback isn’t in a live format, but rather in an email or a social media post, you should probably talk to your dean or professor before responding. If your school doesn’t offer mentoring opportunities designed to help you with written responses like at OHSU, you can always go to your Principal Investigator, your Dissertation Advisory Committee, or any faculty member who advises on research for advice on an appropriate response.
The American Psychological Association Science Directorate provides three key pieces of advice. The first is to develop what’s called a one-pager about your research that explains the aims, the context, and the findings of your research, including information such as potential applications if relevant. APA suggests developing one-pagers to explain your research to congressional and other policymakers, but they are very useful in responses to media or other public inquiries as well (see examples). Second, make full use of your university public relations and media staff before responding to any sort of political attack. Third, let the APA Science Government Relations Office (firstname.lastname@example.org) know as well if your research is attacked by a government policymaker. APA makes it a priority to defend research that is subject to unwarranted political attacks, and co-leads the Coalition to Promote Research which was formed to help defend peer-reviewed research that is attacked in the congressional arena.
If you are the PI, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) freely available guide, Science in an Age of Scrutiny: How Scientists Can Respond to Criticism, and Personal Attacks, offers several suggestions, including evaluating the tone of the feedback and investigating the legitimacy of its source before responding, and refraining from responding in a way in which your response can be edited or manipulated.
The UCS advises to stand by your research and to let your data speak for itself. If you come across people attempting to discredit the findings you are reporting because they don’t fit into their agenda, or simply because they do not agree, convey to them that you are reporting facts, not opinion. Educate them about the meaning of research by letting them know you are neither for nor against what you’ve researched, because that isn’t how research works. The point of research is to examine a topic of importance and to present findings unbiasedly.
The good news is, many in the public respect research and understand that the scientific process may produce unexpected or challenging findings. The American Association for the Advancement of Science summarized several articles that appeared in the March, 2015 issue of the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and determined that “the public tends to hold scientists in high regard. People also generally welcome learning more about a controversial issue, such as geoengineering, in which their minds aren’t already made up. So, the situation is far from hopeless.”