When scientists fall out

Why disagreements get personal, how to feel better about bad surprises, and a heap of good news on Covid.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

This is a story about professional disagreements and how they get personal. During 2020 there was a debate between scientists over how to tackle the pandemic. The mainstream position, at least from late March onwards, was that we needed to stay locked down. There was a counter-consensus group of scientists arguing that much of the population was already protected, the threshold for herd immunity was lower than commonly supposed, and that we should therefore open up. Those scientists made a plausible case and it was right they were listened to; disagreement is the best way we have of stress-testing hypotheses, and speaking personally I learnt a lot from observing the debate between the two camps. But as more evidence accumulated, and the second wave hit us, the “lockdown sceptic” case pretty much collapsed. It now exists only as talk radio fodder. (A challenge to a consensus is valuable, as long as there is enough evidence to sustain it.) Now, a new division has opened up, on the opposite flank. It’s over how soon we can loosen, particularly with regard to schools, and this time the consensus position is we can probably start doing it in the next month or two, starting with young children. The counter-consensus case is that this could be disastrous - that there is plenty of evidence children are vectors of transmission that we need to be much more cautious. Last week this debate got quite personal, when Deepti Gurdasani, leading proponent of this tighter approach and frequent tweeter, accused a representative of the mainstream position, Muge Cevik, of spreading “disinformation”. Some scientists, including one very prominent on Twitter, criticised Gurdasani for this. As a non-scientist I didn’t like it either, partly because I’ve found Cevik’s threads really helpful and balanced. When I criticised Gurdasani on Twitter, she replied to me, defending herself firmly but politely. She later unspooled a thread in which she identified what she claims is a clique of scientists who undermine and bully her. Reading the subsequent back and forth, I find I’ve changed my mind about Gurdasani. She takes the trouble to reply to critics, evenly and calmly. And although I still believe she was wrong to use that term about Cevik, I think there may be some truth in what she says about how she has been treated by her peers. Yes, her arguments are punchily expressed and she gives no quarter, but that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and she always brings evidence. She’s right that her opponents seem to avoid confronting her directly. As I discussed last week, passive-aggressive office politics brings no good to anyone. Finally, there’s an aspect of my own response to this I find interesting. Why was my first instinct was to dismiss Gurdasani and even - at a distance - to dislike her a little? Probably, if I’m honest with myself, because I have kids and I really want them back at school. In other words, not only was my position on the question biased by my situation, but there was a secondary, personal bias in play too. In disagreements, we have a strong tendency to confuse the person with the position they are taking. It goes either way: if you don’t like the person, you tend to be biased against their position; if you don’t like the position, that biases you against the person. If someone doesn’t seem to like you, that might be because they disagree with you on something - and if they’re disagreeing with you that might be because they don’t like you. Often the trick to a more productive conversation is to tease those two things apart.

I’d love you to pre-order my new book, CONFLICTED, on the art and science of productive disagreement. Less than a month to go now! For reasons I explain here, every pre-order helps. If you think you might buy it at any point, buying it now is like doing a favour to me at no cost to yourself.

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Last week I highlighted a passage on conflict from Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with Tim Ferriss, but I recommend listening to or reading the whole show. It contains a lot of valuable advice on creative practice and productivity. Seinfeld, a great phrase-maker, has honed and polished his nuggets of wisdom like his jokes. He argues that we can all train ourselves to be better at whatever it is we want to do - whether that’s getting fit or writing more or whatever it is - by giving ourselves the right incentives. At one point he delivers a great riff about the brain versus the mind. “You’ve got to train your brain like a dog. The mind is infinite in wisdom, the brain is a stupid little dog.” I love that. I also like his idea that “Pain is knowledge rushing in to fill a void at tremendous speed.He explains: “You don’t know that that post of your bed was not where you thought it was, but when your foot hits it, that knowledge is going to come rushing in really fast, and it’s going to really hurt.” For me this nails something I’ve mulled before, which is that our emotional responses to setbacks and shocks - sadness, rage, despair - are the price of improving our mental models of reality. We walk around with a set of working beliefs about the world (I’m going to get this job, Liverpool are bound to win), many of which are at least partly illusory. When we discover which beliefs are false or flawed, we have to revise them quickly. That hurts. Although pain is always painful, I find that thinking of it as a side effect of adjusting to a new, more reality-based equilibrium actually helps a little when I’m in it.


  • A rather legalistic (well, it’s a law blog) but interesting argument about hate speech and social media platforms. There are currently demands to make hate speech on social media platforms illegal. But hate speech is really hard to define. Most jurisdictions take months or years to arrive at judgements on these questions; Austria takes an average of 1273 days, for example. If we make the platforms liable, they’ll have to make the same decisions very quickly - in days or hours. So how do we think they’d react in that situation? They would err on the side of self-preservation and start banning anything that looked remotely close to the definition of hate speech - which would include a lot of perfectly legitimate speech. They’d act like an over-zealous brain surgeon slicing off a whole segment of brain in order to extract a tumour. In other words, what seems like a simple fix would probably end up damaging the whole ecosystem of online information and opinion.

  • In the Journal of Consumer Research, a paper on “status pivoting”. It means that rather trying to compete in a status race with your peers in one domain - say, wealth - you pivot to another, like fitness, or parenting, or virtue. (This is arguably what I did when giving up on a full-time career in advertising to take up writing.)

  • A new collection of Joan Didion’s early pieces has been published. I really enjoyed this overview of her work from Nathan Heller. Also this Q&A with the author in which she makes it perfectly clear she can’t be bothered to do interviews. Oh and this gives me an excuse to post what in my view is Didion’s finest moment - her reply to this letter.

  • OK so this is like the Turing Test but…different. If you’ve been a parent of young kids any time in the last ten years you’ll probably know every word of the book, I WANT MY HAT BACK (Thank you anyway). I had no idea it was such huge and somewhat controversial success until watching this very charming short film which poses a fascinating question: when will an AI be able to explain what happened to the rabbit?

  • Turtleneck and Blazer. My earworm this week.

  • Some free ideas (this is itself a great idea).

  • I’ll be interviewed about CONFLICTED by Matthew Stadlen, for the How To Academy, on February 16th. Join us!

I realise I’m in danger of sounding Polyannaish but there’s been a whole heap of good news recently. Just in the last seven days we’ve had a study showing that the AZ/Oxford vaccine massively lowers transmission (which is over and above its main job of stopping symptoms). The same is true of Pfizer. Data from Israel shows that vaccination is now having big real world effects (see also Gibraltar!). The world has yet another effective vaccine. New evidence suggests one dose of Pfizer gives 90% immunity. Not bad for one week. I know the riposte to all optimism at this stage is “variants” but while it’s clear viral evolution means we’ll have to keep monitoring and updating, as far as I can tell there is almost no danger of a monster mutant setting us back to square one. In worst case scenarios, new variants slow down our progress somewhat. But the basic problem has now been solved, the rest is down to execution. To many of you, that will be obvious already but some of the scarier narratives out there imply there’s no end in sight, which just isn’t true. Having said that, I’m on the side of those arguing we need more caution in the short term in order to be confident of a comprehensive re-opening by Summer. I’d still like to see primary schools re-open though. Just up to Y3, OK? Finally: has the virus, like me, passed its “fitness peak”? Hope so.

Hey did I mention I’d love you to pre-order CONFLICTED?