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The ethics of naming and shaming.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Lately I’ve been pondering the practice of responding to bad behavior by calling public attention to it.

The most recent impetus for my thinking about it was this tech blogger’s response to behavior that felt unwelcoming at a conference (behavior that seems, in fact, to have run afoul of that conference’s official written policies)*, but there are plenty of other examples one might find of “naming and shaming”: the discussion (on blogs and in other media outlets) of University of Chicago neuroscientist Dario Maestripieri’s comments about female attendees of the Society for Neuroscience meeting, the Office of Research Integrity’s posting of findings of scientific misconduct investigations, the occasional instructor who promises to publicly shame students who cheat in his class, and actually follows through on the promise.

There are many forms “naming-and-shaming” might take, and many types of behavior one might identify as problematic enough that they ought to be pointed out and attended to. But there seems to be a general worry that naming-and-shaming is an unethical tactic. Here, I want to explore that worry.

Presumably, the point of responding to bad behavior is because it’s bad — causing harm to individuals or a community (or both), undermining progress on a project or goal, and so forth. Responding to bad behavior can be useful if it stops bad behavior in progress and/or keeps similarly bad behavior from happening in the future. A response can also be useful in calling attention to the harm the behavior does (i.e., in making clear what’s bad about the behavior). And, depending on the response, it can affirm the commitment of individuals or communities that the behavior in question actual is bad, and that the individuals or communities see themselves as having a real stake in reducing it.

Rules, professional codes, conference harassment policies — these are some ways to specify at the outset what behaviors are not acceptable in the context of the meeting, game, work environment, or disciplinary pursuit. There are plenty of contexts, too, where there is no written-and-posted official enumeration of every type of unacceptable behavior. Sometimes communities make judgments on the fly about particular kinds of behavior. Sometimes, members of communities are not in agreement about these judgments, which might result in a thoughtful conversation within the community to try to come to some agreement, or the emergence of a rift that leads people to realize that the community was not as united as they once thought, or ruling on the “actual” badness or acceptability of the behavior by those within the community who can marshal the power to make such a ruling.

Sharing a world with people who are not you is complicated, after all.

Still, I hope we can agree that there are some behaviors that count as bad behaviors. Assuming we had an unambiguous example of someone engaging in such a behavior, should we respond? How should we respond? Do we have a duty to respond?

I frequently hear people declare that one should respond to bad behavior, but that one should do so privately. The idea here seems to be that letting the bad actor know that the behavior in question was bad, and should be stopped, is enough to ensure that it will be stopped — and that the bad behavior must be a reflection of a gap in the bad actor’s understanding.

If knowing that a behavior is bad (or against the rules) were enough to ensure that those with the relevant knowledge never engage in the behavior, though, it becomes difficult to explain the highly educated researchers who get caught fabricating or falsifying data or images, the legions of undergraduates who commit plagiarism despite detailed instructions on proper citation methods, the politicians who lie. If knowledge that a certain kind of behavior is unacceptable is not sufficient to prevent that behavior, responding effectively to bad behavior must involve more than telling the perpetrator of that behavior, “What you’re doing is bad. Stop it.”

This is where penalties may be helpful in responding to bad behavior — get benched for the rest of the game, or fail the class, or get ejected from the conference, or become ineligible for funding for this many years. A penalty can convey that bad behavior is harmful enough to the endeavor or the community that its perpetrator needs a “time-out”.

Sometimes the application of penalties needs to be private (e.g., when a law like the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act makes applying the penalty publicly illegal). But there are dangers in only dealing with bad behavior privately.

When fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are “dealt with” privately, it can make it hard for a scientific community to identify papers in the scientific literature that they shouldn’t trust or researchers who might be prone to slipping back into fabricating, falsifying, or plagiarizing if they think no one is watching. (It is worth noting that large ethical lapses are frequently part of an escalating pattern that started with smaller ethical infractions.)

Worse, if bad behavior is dealt with privately, out of view of members of the community who witnessed the bad behavior in question, those members may lose faith in the community’s commitment to calling it out. Keeping penalties (if any) under wraps can convey the message that the bad behavior is actually tolerated, that official policies against it are empty words.

And sometimes, there are instances where the people within an organization or community with the power to impose penalties on bad actors seem disinclined to actually address bad behavior, using the cover of privacy as a way to opt out of penalizing the bad actors or of addressing the bad behavior in any serious way.

What’s a member of the community to do in such circumstances? Given that the bad behavior is bad because it has harmful effects on the community and its members, should those aware of the bad behavior call the community’s attention to it, in the hopes that the community can respond to it (or that the community’s scrutiny will encourage the bad actor to cease the bad behavior)?

Arguably, a community that is harmed by bad behavior has an interest in knowing when that behavior is happening, and who the bad actors are. As well, the community has an interest in stopping the bad behavior, in mitigating the harms it has already caused, and in discouraging further such behavior. Naming-and-shaming bad actors may be an effective way to secure these interests.

I don’t think this means naming-and-shaming is the only possible way to secure these interests, nor that it is always the best way to do so. Sometimes, however, it’s the tool that’s available that seems likely to do the most good.

There’s not a simple algorithm or litmus test that will tell you when shaming bad actors is the best course of action, but there are questions that are worth asking when assessing the options:

  • What are the potential consequences if this piece of bad behavior, which is observable to at least some members of the community, goes unchallenged?
  • What are the potential consequences if this piece of bad behavior, which is observable to at least some members of the community, gets challenged privately? (In particular, what are the potential consequences to the person engaging in the bad behavior? To the person challenging the behavior? To others who have had occasion to observe the behavior, or who might be affected by similar behavior in the future?)
  • What are the potential consequences if this piece of bad behavior, which is observable to at least some members of the community, gets challenged publicly? (In particular, what are the potential consequences to the person engaging in the bad behavior? To the person challenging the behavior? To others who have had occasion to observe the behavior, or who might be affected by similar behavior in the future?)

Challenging bad behavior is not without costs. Depending on your status within the community, challenging a bad actor may harm you more than the bad actor. However, not challenging bad behavior has costs, too. If the community and its members aren’t prepared to deal with bad behavior when it happens, the community has to bear those costs.
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* Let me be clear that this post is focused on the broader question of publicly calling out bad behavior rather than on the specific details of Adria Richards’ response to the people behind her at the tech conference, whether she ought to have found their jokes unwelcoming, whether she ought to have responded to them the way she did, or what have you. Since this post is not about whether Adria Richards did everything right (or everything wrong) in that particular instance, I’m going to be quite ruthless in pruning comments that are focused on her particular circumstances or decisions. Indeed, commenters who make any attempt to use the comments here to issue threats of violence against Richards (of the sort she is receiving via social media as I compose this post), or against anyone else, will have their information (including IP address) forwarded to law enforcement.

If you’re looking for my take on the details of the Adria Richards case, I’ll have a post up on my other blog within the next 24 hours.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. randoo 11:27 pm 03/22/2013

    Calling out bad behavior, publicly or privately, needn’t involve shaming. Shaming is purely punitive. Worse, it’s a punitive spectacle with implicit entertainment value, designed to elicit the lowest, most degraded form of self-satisfaction in the witnesses. Compare putting people in the stocks. It’s not done to elicit sympathy or understanding, of course, but plays to the basest human instincts- a facile and meaningless elevation of personal status by way of degrading another. If a bad actor has a sense of shame over his transgressions, then no public shaming is necessary. If he doesn’t, then public shaming won’t magically create it. Blame and shame is a nowhere game.

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:14 am 03/23/2013

    I take your point about “shaming” not necessarily being the right emotion to elicit (although it rhymes so well with “naming”). But, is there nothing productive in trying to get someone whose actions have caused harm to others to recognize that harm and, you know, feel bad about it? Presumably a community could find ways to try to foster more awareness and empathy in the bad actors without using the exercise for cheap entertainment value.

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  3. 3. syzygyygyzys 1:06 am 03/23/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    Thank you for contributing to this site. After reading the background information in the provided links, your blog post presents an issue that seems not to have improved much over the years. I have granddaughters with the potential for significant contribution to whatever field they choose. Development of strategies aimed at correcting behavior ,which could impede their future work, could benefit them. I will watch for your blog posts.

    I’m going to leave your blog up in my browser to see what comments you get. I have followed SA online for only a couple of months, but many environmental blog commenters display hostility almost reflexively. Comments there seem more highly polarized than I would have hoped. Maybe it’s different over here. I’m new to blog comments. Maybe this is representative of how most work?

    People in my company understand their job is forfeit for such behavior. Letting people focus on their work seemed good for business even before granddaughters. (I hope they choose the hard sciences.)

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  4. 4. randoo 2:57 am 03/23/2013

    To be ashamed is to feel shame, but if that judgment is depersonalized, or perceived as coming from others instead of from oneself, then there may be no remorse or regret involved. So I think regret/remorse is what we are looking for to facilitate behavioral change.
    There’s the recognizing, the feeling bad about it, and then there’s the natural connection between the two, a connection which is more spontaneous in some than in others. Perhaps for the less empathetic (more sociopathic?) among us, the best way tap regret is to speak to how the bad behavior harms the actor himself. And to do this we have to let go of any desire we have to punish, retaliate, or shame; because we have to actually have the bad actor’s best interest at heart.

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  5. 5. syzygyygyzys 6:36 am 03/23/2013

    I took a philosophy course a very long time ago. It was taught by a somewhat bitter, former German 2nd Lt who was commissioned, at age 17, just a few days before the end of WW2. So, please forgive me if I misuse philosophical terminology.

    The arguments set forth by randoo seem to be assumed as “a priori” mixed with contingent truths. Boy that was a long time ago. Perhaps I have missed the point or don’t understand it altogether? But I’m unconvinced that the jerks at the conference could be corrected with so mild an approach.

    I really don’t mean it as criticism. Maybe it’s just the form of the argument that brings it out. But I keep hearing an unsaid, “Also sprach Zarathustra” at the end of each randoo post.

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  6. 6. sjfone 11:09 am 03/23/2013

    Just because I fabricated some data, copied a few pages and made numerous suggestive remarks to by female co-workers, now they want to label me a sexist and a cheat. I mean, no one ever said any thing before.

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  7. 7. curmudgeon 11:29 am 03/23/2013

    The problem with any form of naming and shaming is that it must be done by those perceived (often incorrectly) to be more righteous and more correct in their assessment of ethical behaviour. If the ‘shamed’ has any justification, no matter how small, in believing this not to be the case then this can spectacularly misfire, reinforcing the undesired behaviour on the ‘might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’ principle rather than correcting it. It was a wise man who declared that only those who are without sin should get in line to throw stones. Any hint of the pot calling the kettle black will inevitably result in a righteous indignation that may just tip the fallible human being toward becoming the hardened sinner.

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  8. 8. G. Karst 11:36 am 03/23/2013

    I thought, perhaps you were leading up to a discussion of the Marcott et al paper/scandal. This newest hockey stick paper which didn’t make it out the door, before multiple irregularities and various manipulations were exposed. Bad taste in joke telling, amongst conventioneers, while tacky, is hardly significant, when compared to breeches in scientific protocols and standardized methods. GK

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  9. 9. syzygyygyzys 1:15 pm 03/23/2013

    GK,

    The Professor embedded links that detail the referenced incident. I missed the links the first time. When you have time to review what happened, you may agree that it went beyond tacky behavior which could be tolerated for the greater good. I was taken aback that calling someone on loutish conduct could escalate to threats of violence against the accuser.

    I think the article addresses a larger issue than the specific incident. Personally I view conferences and the like as a waste of time. However, had I been in attendance at that conference and seated within earshot of those louts, I would likely have invited them to leave as well. I have done it before at a movie theater.
    So, why not think about how to promote civility? It’s more complicated in a group of peers than with strangers in a theater. Well, I wouldn’t hesitate to act even then, but I can see how some might have more at risk than I do.

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  10. 10. tuba_man 11:34 pm 03/23/2013

    I think more than just naming-and-shaming, it’s important for policing to happen at every level. Whether that’s anything from a distributed, non-hierarchical group to a highly-structured militaristic pecking order, enforcement of a group’s rules has to happen at all levels to be effective.

    Different people provide and respond to corrective action in different ways, so obviously the details are going to change depending on circumstances, but to me the core of it is that silence and inactivity are acquiescence to the status quo. Sometimes the proper action is a one-on-one “That’s not cool, stop that.” while in more egregious situations, it’s a public pronouncement like “The entire research team for has been disbanded and barred from further work with our university for falsifying records. The members of this team are listed below…”

    More important than civility, or worrying about whether or not the initial response to an incident of bad behavior was out-of-proportion, I think it’s important for communities to support the fact that something happened at all before concerning themselves with specifics.

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  11. 11. dbarc 9:03 am 03/24/2013

    The civil thing to do with any dispute is to take it to some authority that both parties in the dispute agree is an authority. At the very least this serves as a reality-check. It would also allow the offenders a chance to reflect and possibly apologize.

    Public shaming would be a next course of action if the authority dismissed a genuine grievance. I don’t know if that happened in this particular case, maybe it did. An unrelated example that comes to mind is church authorities covering up abuse of minors. In that extreme case it’s absolutely necessary to do whatever it takes to expose the wrong- doing.

    There’s another question — who needs to know when someone is shamed? Friends & family? Collegues who know the offender personally? Anyone attending a particular conference? In the case of shaming someone on the internet, the audience is potentially the whole world.

    Another instance of shaming that comes to mind a surveillance video that caught a woman in England dropping a cat in a trash can and closing the lid. The video was put on YouTube or something. It didn’t take long for the internet to discover her identity and for the wrath and indigation of the internet to come down on her. I think after her identity was discovered she was arrested, or fined at least.

    Would she have been caught without being exposed on the internet? Did she deserve the abuse from strangers on top of being arrested? Will her example
    make someone think twice before abusing an animal when they think no one’s watching? Do we know everything that we need to know from one video?

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  12. 12. nukturnal 7:52 am 03/25/2013

    I dont think public Naming and Shaming should be encouraged as the most immediate resort. I agree with @dbarc that disputes must go through an authority to serve as a check and balance.

    We cannot validate the truth based on one person’s side of the story, going public and possibly ruing your reputation in the process. Do we just catch people and put them in jail because we saw them kill someone? The law courts are sensible enough to give that fellow a fair trail (Checks & Balances).

    One aspect of this whole naming and shaming publicly that we’ve may not be talking about is that it can be abused especially if its just a photograph not really telling anyone first hand whats happening like what happened at the conference. Looking at that photo really does not say anything. People can just go around take random photos and write whatever they like about it.

    Character assassination is so infectious that innocent victims may never recover lost reputation. Its very important that we encourage public naming and shaming ONLY as a last resort after we have exhausted all other possible channels.

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