Scientists, Mind Your Ethos

What on earth is ethos and why is it important for scientists? Two papers in PNAS shed some light.

AsianScientist (Oct. 10, 2014) – The truth is, facts don’t speak for themselves.

Far from being just a ‘neutral’ presentation of information, every scientific paper, conference presentation or lab discussion is actually an argument; the aim is not only to inform, but to persuade.

For example, if I would like you to believe my claim that the new protein I found causes brain cancer, I could do a few experiments to show that patients with brain cancer have elevated levels of this protein, or that mice lacking this protein never develop brain cancer etc. When I publish a paper on my findings though, my purpose isn’t just to tell the reader that I have done these five experiments, but is really to convince them that my hypothesis is true.

Scientists are very familiar with this line of reasoning: providing evidence for a claim. However, what most scientists may not realize is that this type of reasoning is not the only option available to them.

Ethos, logos and pathos

I’m referring to Aristotle’s framework of ethos, logos and pathos, three different strategies that rhetoricians of old used to persuade their listeners. Of these three, scientists are most comfortable with logos, or the appeal to reason. At the other end of the spectrum, pathos—the appeal to emotion—is frowned upon in practically all scientific disciplines. But what of ethos?

In rhetoric, ethos is the appeal to a person’s character. This might not strike scientists as a valid way to assess research, given that we are used to describing our actions in third person in order to make our claims seem more universal. (“I added solution to the flask.” vs “The solution was added to the flask.”) Furthermore, how can the reader judge my character through a journal article?

But we actually rely on ethos to make decisions all the time. Ethos is not just about whether you are a nice person or not, but whether you are a trustworthy character. In the context of a research paper, ethos can be inferred from the journal in which the study was published and the fame of the institution or individual author; but even something as simple as citing the relevant scientific literature signals to the reader that the author understands the field and knows what he or she is talking about.

Recently, I came across two interesting articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that highlight just how important ethos is for scientists.

Peer-facing ethos

The first study, led by Assistant Professor Alexander Michael Petersen from the Institute for Advanced Studies, Lucca, examined the impact of reputation on an academic’s career. The researchers found that scientists who had a good reputation among their peers were more likely to be cited, particularly in the first few years after a paper had been published; in effect giving famous scientists “a significant early advantage.” (For those who are interested in the details, they found that a tenfold increase in a quantitatively defined measure of reputation led to a 66 percent increase in a scientist’s citation rate.)

In other words, having a good ethos in the eyes of your peers actually influences how well cited you become, a virtuous cycle. Conversely, it could also mean that if your reputation is poor or you are not widely known, your work is not getting the recognition it otherwise might. I believe many Asian scientists are in this position, quietly doing good work but not making the effort to tell anyone about it.

The authors also highlighted that new media are changing the way scientists view each other. Managing your peer-facing ethos these days is not just about being seen and heard at the right conferences, but increasingly involves developing your social media presence and speaking to the press.

Public-facing ethos

Beyond the impact it can have on an individual scientist’s career, ethos is also essential for the reputation of the scientific enterprise in the public sphere. As I have mentioned in previous columns, how the public perceives scientific information has important implications on decisions that affect society as a whole, such as (in)action on climate change.

The next research paper, authored by Professor Susan Fiske and her graduate student Cydney Dupree from Princeton University, investigated how scientists are perceived, vis-à-vis other professions. Breaking down communicator credibility into the two components of expertise and trustworthiness, Fiske and Dupree found that scientists were perceived to be competent but cold. This perception, placing scientists in the same “envied” category as CEOs and lawyers, in turn affected the scientists’ ability to communicate the risks of climate change.

Scientists, competent but cold. Credit: Susan Fiske/Wilson School.
Scientists, competent but cold. Credit: Susan Fiske/Wilson School.

Building a career on ethos

What both these studies suggest to me is that scientists need to remember that they are in it for the long haul. Although the publish or perish culture may push people to go for quantity over quality, it’s more important to have the long term goal of building your ethos in mind. Admittedly, citation metrics are a frustrating if necessary part of career progression. However, rather than try to “game” the system, it may be more profitable to focus on developing a truly important and interesting research career.

The metrics are blunt, but as these research papers show, they are getting more sophisticated all the time. Perhaps most importantly, human assessment—whether by peers or the public—will ultimately determine how our scientific contributions are remembered.

The articles can be found at:
Petersen et al. (2014) Reputation and Impact in Academic Careers.
Fiske and Dupree (2014) Gaining Trust As Well As Respect in Communicating to Motivated Audiences About Science Topics.

This article is from a monthly column called From The Editor’s Desk(top). Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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