Does ecology suffer from the cult of personality?


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As scientists we assume that we are objective. We believe that information is unambiguous and that the truth can be found in data. But is this always true?

If the spread of knowledge is made up of two parts – the generation of that knowledge as well as its dissemination – then the cult of personality can result in one of two pitfalls. The first is the Trap of Charisma, which happens when we over-value the quality of information if it is described by someone with eloquence and confidence. The second snag is the Trap of Boredom, which is when we undervalue information because the poor soul explaining it is mumbling, shy and confused.

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It is very difficult to avoid these traps.

Even more relevant, is how we are quickly deceived by status (which may often also be linked to charisma). We tend to follow research from prestigious institutions much more closely than that from less renowned universities. A recent comment in Nature even questioned whether we ignore quality research simply because it is not accompanied by an impressive author affiliation.

Having recently attended an amazing conservation conference, I discovered that I am a sucker to the cult of personality. I noticed that I had to make a concerted effort to concentrate during talks by folks from unknown research groups and, even more alarmingly, I also noticed that my attention waxed and waned depending on whether the speaker was male or female. I am very ashamed by this.

I have always tried to be fair and treat people equally. Yet, despite this, my subconscious biases (you can test yours here) cause the hidden workings of my brain to jeopardise my best intentions. On the bright side, I am now aware of my own inability to be objective and should hopefully be able to avoid deceiving myself in the future.

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4 thoughts on “Does ecology suffer from the cult of personality?

  1. This is something I’ve mused about as well, in various contexts: the importance of who is presenting the information, and how it’s being presented. I agree that it’s something we all ought to be aware of, and I doubt we’ll ever get rid of it (although in some contexts, I don’t think we’d want to).

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/bandwagons-in-ecology/

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/why-are-some-ecological-ideas-controversial/

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/well-never-get-rid-of-salesmanship-in-science-and-wouldnt-want-to/

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/on-rhetoric-in-scientific-writing/

    • Thanks for the comments and links, Jeremy (btw I’m a long-time reader and big fan of Dynamic Ecology)

      I agree that we shouldn’t be scared of big egos and flashy personalities. I also agree that they are not always a bad thing. They often make things more interesting and fun.

      I can’t blame a passionate speaker for a bit of salesmanship, and I have no right to suggest that (s)he should present differently. All I am arguing is that the onus is on each one of us to familiarise ourselves with our own cognitive biases.

  2. Pingback: While I might be a captive in the Ivory Tower, at least I don’t have Stockholm syndrome | The Solitary Ecologist

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