Science as an intellectual “safe space”? How to do it right.

I don’t recall hearing the term “safe space” until recently, but now it seems to be used all the time, by both the left and the right, to describe an environment where people can feel free to express opinions that might be unpopular in a larger community, without fear of criticism or contradiction.

Sometimes a safe space is taken to be a good thing—a sort of hothouse garden in which ideas can be explored and allowed to grow rapidly in an environment free of natural enemies or competition—and other times it’s taken to be a bad thing, a place where ideas will not develop in useful ways.

The short version is that people sometimes (but not always) want safe spaces for themselves, but they typically are derisive of safe spaces for people they disagree with. Safe spaces are a little like protective tariffs in economics: if you feel strong, you might not see the need for anyone to have a safe space; if you feel weak, or if you have weak allies, you might want those protective zones.

Psychology journals as safe spaces

This all came up when I was thinking what seemed to me to be exaggeratedly defensive reactions of scientists (in particular, some psychology researchers) to criticism of their published work. To me, if you publish your work, it’s public, and you should welcome criticism and active engagement with your ideas. But, to many researchers, it seems that praise is OK but skepticism is unwelcome. And in some cases researchers go all out and attack their critics. What these researchers seem to be looking for is a safe space. But to me it seems ridiculous to publish a paper in a public journal, promote it all over the public news media, and then claim object to criticism. This sort of behavior seems roughly equivalent to fencing off some area in a public park and then declaring it private property and only admitting your friends. Actually, even worse than that, because prominent psychologists use their safe space to spread lies about people. So it’s more like fencing off some area in a public park and then declaring it private property and then using it to launch missiles against people who you perceive as threatening your livelihood.

“Freakonomics” as a safe space

Another example came up a few years ago when Kaiser Fung and I wrote an article expressing a mix of positive and negative attitudes toward the Freakonomics franchise. One of the Freaknomics authors responded aggressively to us, and in retrospect I think he wanted Freakonomics to be a sort of safe space for economic thinking. The idea, perhaps, was that “thinking like an economist” is counterintuitive and sometimes unpopular, and so it’s a bad idea for outsiders such as Kaiser and me to go in and criticize. If the Freaknomics team are correct in their general themes (the importance of incentives, the importance of thinking like an economist, etc.), then we’re being counterproductive to zoom in on details they may have gotten wrong.

Safe spaces in science

I have no problem with my work being criticized; indeed, I see it as a key benefit of publication that more people can see what I’ve done and find problems with it.

That said, I understand the need for safe spaces. Just for example, I don’t share the first draft of everything I write. Or, to step back even further, suppose I’m working on a math problem and I want to either prove statement X or find a counterexample. Then it can be helpful to break the task in two, and separately try to find the proof or find the counterexample. When working on the proof, you act as if you know that X is true, and when searching for the counterexample, you act as if you know X is false. Another example is group problem solving, where it’s said to be helpful to have a “brainstorming session” in which people throw ideas on the table without expectation or fear of criticism. At some point you want to hear about longshot ideas, and it can be good to have some sort of safe space where these speculations can be shared without being immediately crushed.

My suggestion

So here’s my proposal. If you want a safe space for your speculations, fine: Just label what you’re doing as speculation, not finished work, and if NPR or anyone else interviews you about it, please be clear that you’re uncertain about these ideas and, as far as you’re concerned, these ideas remain in a no-criticism zone, a safe space where they can be explored without concern that people will take them too seriously.