Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Academic rivalry

Posted by Peter Tennant

Last month I discovered I have a joke mortal enemy. Less Holmes and Moriarty, more Sylvester and Tweety. I'm a bit sketchy on the details, but according to my (evil?) spies he likens me to Dick Dastardly, chief antagonist of Wacky Races.

Sharing a joke with a fellow early career researcher
Jolly as this example may be (or so I hope), the issue of 'academic enemies' is an unfortunate reality.

Occasionally, two people, or even two research groups, become so attached to their methodologies, hypotheses, or paradigms, that they develop a sort of 'unfriendly competition'. It's actually quite like Wacky Races. Only with fewer flying cars.

I think it usually starts pretty innocently. A slightly nasty conference question. An overly harsh review. Sometimes, both camps are just so attached to their own way of thinking, and so disdainful of the opposite, that the idea of a polite exchange seems somehow inappropriate.

I guess the quest for the truth can sometimes be a very passionate one, despite the stereotype of Scientists as dull and emotionless. I myself can recall several moments when I've called a distinguished researcher an ignorant fool. Admittedly, they've usually just rejected one of my papers. And I would never insult them to their face. That would be immature. Far better to throw a tantrum in the safety of your own office.

Anyway, whatever the reasons, the effect of these rivalries can be startlingly plain to see. [Cue custard pie]. Last year I went to a bizarre talk that provides a convenient example. In it, the presenter discussed a debate between himself and his academic enemy Dr Weedypants*. Although dressed in intellectual fluff, the message was simple: Dr Weedypants is a fool.

It could be true. Dr Weedypants may be a fool (sadly, he was not available to defend himself). But I'm afraid I simply could not listen to the argument. I was too put off by the presenter's pantomine-villain act. This probably makes me a fickle-minded researcher who still needs to learn how to suppress my emotions. After all, despite his pathological tendency towards evil, Dick Dasterdly was also innovator-in-chief. And the MRC don't give out grants for being nice.

*I may have been a little creative with the name here.


  1. Thick skin required but never leave the science behind.

  2. Puts me in mind of this lecture at Goldsmiths setting out the products of intellectual enmity - 'My Best Fiend. On the Productivity of Intellectual Enmities'

    "Enemies are productive. They spark interest, they draw energy, people care about them and they care about us. Why else would people spend time denouncing this badly formulated concept of an esteemed colleague, decrying the neighbouring discipline that keeps misunderstanding the world, or keep on writing bad tempered footnotes about this mistaken theory – and thereby become complicit in this very unproductivity? Why do scholars choose this enemy and not another?

    Enemies also often involuntarily direct ones thinking, researching and theorising. If an enemy posits a, people feel compelled to posit b. If she writes approvingly of c, we need to denounce it. An enemy can have more power over people’s thinking than they would probably like to have it. It is as if people are guided in their thinking not only from their research object, but by an unknown field of do’s and don’t’s, accumulated since the time of their studies, of where to go and look and where not to look."

    1. I must say, I was extremely flattered when I discovered I had gained my first 'public enemy'. We'll see whether it turns out to be a useful spur in terms of my research.