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In my opinion

The intimidation of researchers: a plea for meaningful institutional protection

Universities need to better protect researchers who are bullied for sharing scientific knowledge publicly.

BY VINCENT DENAULT | MAY 12 2021

Social media hostility has been a hot topic in recent months. A number of public figures have spoken out about receiving insults, derogatory comments and even threats. However, the issue is not unique to those in media, culture and politics. Because they challenge conventional wisdom with scientific knowledge, researchers are also subject to intimidation attempts. While this is not a new phenomenon, and some have publicly reported their experiences, intimidation towards researchers seems to be rather unknown, even by key stakeholders, until they are targeted by bullies. This is how I found out for myself.

Pseudoscience and the justice system

In 2015, I was completing my master’s degree in law. The focus of my thesis was the impact of nonverbal communication during courtroom trials. Judges can be influenced by a myriad of factors, such as conventional wisdom about human nature, when evaluating witnesses’ statements. For instance, nervousness and hesitation are often associated with lying, when in fact, both lying and truth-telling witnesses can be nervous and hesitant. In other words, because of conventional wisdom, honest witnesses can be perceived as dishonest. As the outcomes of many trials (e.g., criminal trials) hinge on witness credibility, this is not a trivial issue. In addition to discussing conventional wisdom in my thesis, I also discussed the issue of trainings to “decode” nonverbal behaviour.

In recent years, these trainings had gained in popularity among legal professionals in Quebec, including police officers, lawyers and judges. For instance, talking about the past while looking to the right, pursing the lips, scratching the neck, and holding the right hand with the left hand are associated with lying.

However, for over a decade, research had clearly demonstrated that such interpretations are not only unfounded, they are also dangerous. In police contexts, such interpretations could result in coercive interrogations and false confessions. Despite this, large organizations opened their doors to trainings to “decode” nonverbal behaviour. Before my master’s – when I had a low level of scientific literacy – I attended several of these courses, paid thousands of dollars and obtained “diplomas,” only to realize, gradually, that I had been seduced by pseudoscience, as had Quebec police officers, lawyers and judges.

Paying the price for defending science

During my master’s, I remained rather quiet, notably because trainings to “decode” nonverbal behaviour had a strong following in several countries and was a bona fide industry. I was afraid of reprisals. However, as I was finishing my thesis,  I criticized those trainings in an interview with a French-language newspaper. I subsequently gave other interviews. Since my comments were based on my thesis’ arguments, I expected that any responses would, at the very least, respond to my thesis’ arguments and, therefore, be supported by evidence. I was wrong.

As soon as my first interview was published, rather than responding to the arguments in my thesis, a very small but vocal number of supporters of these trainings sought, sometimes with cult-like fervour, to discredit me, including on social media. Until I left Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and sometimes even afterwards, insults and derogatory comments about me were published. For example, according to some, I was obnoxious, ungrateful and jealous. I was called a fraud, a liar and a manipulator. And, apparently, my friends would betray me when they figured this out. But the intimidation attempts extended beyond cyberspace. For example, a colleague who, like me, took a stand on the issue was subject to intimidation attempts, as well as verbal threats. A letter was even sent to the research institute where we had a joint project, as well as to the university where I was studying, intending to discredit us. Six years later, the intimidation attempts continue. Just recently, researchers I worked with received an email that attempted to intimidate them and to discredit me.

Institutions should also take a stand

When conventional wisdom is challenged, when scientific knowledge is disseminated, the general public can take an informed position on various issues, instead of relying on the authority of individuals who are only experts simply because they call themselves experts. But when researchers and science communicators speak out and expose themselves to hostility, they can put their mental, physical and social health at risk. My experience is hardly unique. But it can be worse. Death threats, “doxxing” (sharing someone’s personal contact information), suspicious packages, formal notices, legal proceedings, anonymous phone calls, vulgar and hostile messages, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs and harassment of researchers and their families. This is what others have faced.

What type of institutional support is needed here? Without meaningful support, can we expect researchers with busy schedules, doctoral students and postdocs with uncertain futures to stand alone in defending the results of public research, constantly worried that bullies will put their money where their mouth is?

The Quebec minister of higher education recently appointed an expert panel on the importance of academic freedom. This presents a valuable opportunity to address the issue of institutional support for researchers who face attacks from individuals and organizations that reject the state of science; Promises during television interviews and praises at award ceremonies are not enough to safeguard the mental, physical and social health of researchers who speak out for the public good.

Vincent Denault is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University. He holds a PhD in communication from the Université de Montréal. He is also co-founder and co-director of the Centre d’études en sciences de la communication non verbale of the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal.

This text originally appeared in French in the Acfas Magazine. Read the original text.

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