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Shamer shaming

This post is by Phil Price.

I can’t recall when I first saw “shaming” used in its currently popular sense. I remember noting “slut shaming” and “fat shaming” but did they first become popular two years ago? Three? At any rate, “shaming” is now everywhere…and evidently it’s a very bad thing.

When I first saw the term, I agreed with the message it was trying to convey: it is bad to try to make people feel ashamed of being fat, or of wanting to have sex. Indeed, I’d say it’s bad to try to make people feel ashamed of anything that isn’t unethical or morally wrong or at least irritating. Down with slut shaming! Down with fat shaming! Down with gay shaming!

But somehow all criticism seems to have become “shaming.” A few days ago I posted a message to my neighborhood listserv, reminding people that (1) we are in a severe drought (I live in California), (2) washing one’s car with a hose uses a lot of water, and indeed is a fineable offense if you don’t use a nozzle that shuts off the water when you release it, (3) all commercial car washes in our area recycle their water, and (4) our storm drains empty directly into a creek. The next day I got an angry email from a neighbor: how dare I shame him for washing his car on the street?

On this blog, Andrew has frequently posted about researchers doing shameful things, such as plagiarizing, and refusing to admit to major mistakes in their published work. (There’s nothing shameful about making a mistake, at least not if you’ve tried hard to get it right, but it is shameful to refuse to admit it). And, sure enough, some people have complained that Andrew is “shaming” these people.

Plagiarist-shaming, academic fraud-shaming, hack journalist-shaming, all of those are evidently in the same unacceptable category as fat-shaming and slut-shaming. There is nothing shameful in the world, except trying to make somebody feel ashamed. Shamer-shaming is the only kind of shaming that is OK.

This post is by Phil Price


  1. Shravan Vasishth says:

    There’s no question that the climate change econometrician guy and the red clothing folks should have tried to understand Andrew’s critique and tried to do a better job instead of fighting back. I don’t even have anything to say about plagiarists.

    But if you want real change, the Wagenmakers approach seems more effective: he just writes a paper showing you what’s wrong and how one might do it differently (e.g., the Bem work). One could see it as shaming, but it comes across (at least to me) as more concrete. For example, Wagenmakers and colleagues are attempting to replicate the Tracy and Beall study, and to do it right, not just talking about what’s wrong with the work they did. I do see that Andrew has limited time and he at least points out the problems. That’s all great. Andrew also writes papers criticizing others’ studies and presenting alternative analyses. That’s probably more effective than his shaming articles and blog entries.

    One major problem with many of the studies Andrew criticizes is that the people doing the statistics are not well-trained. It’s hard to get proper training in statistics if you are not a statistician and just working in a field where you just use statistics as a tool. Many of these people are working with an incomplete understanding of the tools they’re using, and what will change their approach to experiment design and data analysis is articles addressing problems in their work from more knowledgeable people. The way Andrew tells it, even statisticians sometimes have no idea how to analyze data (unless they have a PhD, maybe even then not ;). If so many people, even formally trained people, don’t make the cut, I think more compassion is needed from Andrew’s side. The focus should not be on shaming but on educating.

    • John says:

      I find that Andrew write’s compassionately when he’s writing a critique.

      I think we have to consider the tradeoffs involved in the best critic’s time. There are only so many people who are good at this. Do we want them spending all of their time redoing experiments others have done only to show what was obvious in the first place? The critique itself has an important place and for someone who is not skilled to take it as shaming rather than education is their problem.

      Which brings me to my main point. I see Andrew as an educator. Are we to take all of our teachers and make it impossible for them to address the ignorant because they may be ashamed of their ignorance?

      • Phil says:

        This is a good point but it’s not my point. What I’m saying is that I don’t think Andrew (or anyone) should be obligated to write “compassionately” about a plagiarist, or about someone who fabricates data.

        He (or I, or anyone) should write compassionately when pointing out someone’s legitimate mistake, for sure. And he/we should also be both compassionate and professional when involved in a discussion or dispute about research methods, even when we’re sure we’re right and the other person is wrong. There is no moral failing in being wrong. For instance, the color-of-clothing researchers seem to be a bit obtuse about Andrew’s point, and perhaps too defensive, but I don’t think they should be ashamed of their behavior. (I do think it’s OK to point out where you think they are in error. I don’t think it’s good science or good pedagogy to hold one’s tongue just because you don’t want to ruffle someone’s feathers).

        But plagiarists! Fabricators! Not only do I think it’s acceptable to “shame” such people, I think it is bad NOT to shame them. Just shrugging and saying “well, some people behave badly, let’s not try to make them feel bad about it”…I think that’s the wrong attitude. Such people may not be irredeemable — I’m not saying no such person should ever be allowed to lead a normal life — but those acts should be seen as unacceptable. Shameful.

        • Rahul says:

          The devil is in the details: Should this sort of “deserved” shaming come with an expiry date? If the act ceases should the shaming too? Should a person be forgiven at some point. If one concedes that one has forgiven a person and moved on should one still continue to shame him from time to time?

          If the world has properly punished a person & he has apologized & stopped doing the unacceptable act, should I still continue my public shaming act? Should public shaming still be the first course of action or the last resort?

  2. keith says:

    “Slut-shaming” is a weird one. If you don’t want to shame them, maybe don’t call them sluts.

    • Daniel Gotthardt says:

      The point is that slutiness as a concept is just sexist and meant to primarily control women’s sexual freedom and undermine their liberties. It’s not just that calling a specific person a slut is an insult but the concept itself is the problem. In a similar way like the word “gay” has been adopted by the ones who were meant to be insulted by it, there were people trying to – well – conquer the word slut.

    • Elin says:

      SLut shaming is a way of silencing women specifically by turning an argument about substance into an argument about their sexuality e.g. claiming that they got a job by having sex with a powerful man rather than on their merits. It has nothing to do with some kind of puritanical idea of making the women who are targeted not be sexually active.

  3. numeric says:

    How dare you introduce cultural relativism into a scientific blog–shame on you!

  4. jonathan says:

    I have a complex relationship with shaming because of studies in religion, where it becomes clear that shaming is a collective effort to enforce a set of ethical or moral standards for right or wrong. As in, honor killings are done because shame attaches to the family group if it doesn’t act to preserve its standing within that community. Talking about these issues with my daughters, I see “slut shaming” more in this light, as an attempt to enforce certain community standards and, more generally, to keep women’s sexuality under control, a goal of so much of religion and culture through history. Some people, of course, take it as a dare, even as something to claim for themselves as a statement of independence and as a rejection of those standards.

    It’s of course right for academia to use shaming to enforce standards of behavior because those are tied to the objective scales of methodology and replication rather than to beliefs and cultural codes. But I also think people who need shaming will tend to be the ones who most reject the intended lesson, that rather than say, “I want to be part of your group”, they’re more likely to say, “screw you, I’m right” or some version of “I only want to be part of your group on my terms”. I see the ad hominem claims more in that light, if only because so many people are stubborn assbleeps when it comes to saying, “I’m wrong.”

    I sometimes wonder why belief codes are so often stronger than objective codes when it comes to enforcement. I think it comes down to the lines drawn, that you’re one of us or you aren’t, that you’re part of the body or you are cut off. When a Dr. Andrew Wakefield can still be called Dr. Andrew Wakefield, we see that degree of clarity doesn’t exist when you violate objective codes.

    • Phil says:

      Hmm. You say ‘..I also think people who need shaming will tend to be the ones who most reject the intended lesson, that rather than say, “I want to be part of your group”, they’re more likely to say, “screw you, I’m right” or some version of “I only want to be part of your group on my terms”.’

      The goal isn’t necessarily to change the behavior of the person being criticized. I think that public scorn for plagiarists and hack journalists and data fabricators makes it less likely other people will do those things. Similarly for people who leave their dogs’ poop on the sidewalk — something that was common when I was a kid and is now rare. When these sorts of behaviors become culturally unacceptable, people are less likely to do them.

      You’re surely right that some people are literally shameless, and that those people are not going to change their behavior. But I don’t think that means they shouldn’t be criticized or shouldn’t be used as examples of shameless behavior. Quite the contrary, in fact.

      • Erin Jonaitis says:

        Certainly a little righteous indignation can feel good in the moment. It feels like you are striking a blow for the good guys. But I don’t think that’s the best metric.

        I think whether this tactic works to change the behavior of observers is an empirical question. I suspect how well it works depends on how easy the behavior is to hide and whether the observers feel they have any compelling alternatives. With respect to scientific corner-cutting, I fear I am not optimistic on either count.

        With poop on the sidewalk, it’s easier to imagine shame being effective — it’s harder to hide and the alternatives are not that much more effort. In particular, we have one neighbor whose dog sometimes poops in our vinca. This is not that much more prosocial than sidewalk poop, but it’s slightly easier to hide. It’s more obvious, and more obviously weird, if you’re caught in the act, so it’s risky — but if you’re not, the evidence is well-camouflaged. So it doesn’t surprise me that someone went this route. And hey, at least this way we don’t get it on our shoes. I’d probably try shaming if I saw the team in the act, but I haven’t yet.

        • Andrew says:


          To connect to another recent thread (Mark Palko’s posts on education reform), we might need a bit more righteous indignation and a bit less acceptance of unethical behavior.

          • Erin Jonaitis says:

            Hm. So is your contention that shaming would work better if it were done by more people? Or more prominent people, more loudly? Or what?

            There must be empirical data on this question. Actually with the right dataset it seems ripe for the kind of multilevel modeling approach you like, because I bet the real answer is that the effect of shaming on later observer behavior is not everywhere zero, but varies in magnitude with particulars of the situation and the people involved, and may also vary in direction. But I am not sure what to search for to find out who has looked at it.

            I did just see this on Twitter a week or two ago and it may be relevant:
            My one course in causal inference isn’t enough for me to comment critically on the methods but I do think the approach is interesting and the dataset a good start.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “I see “slut shaming” more in this light, as an attempt to enforce certain community standards and, more generally, to keep women’s sexuality under control, a goal of so much of religion and culture through history.”

      Well, you know, sexuality is how babies get made, so most cultures that have survived have tried to bring some standards and control to that process. Otherwise, you just end up with random families like some NFL player’s after he gets cut and can’t pay child support to the various mothers of his children anymore.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    Whoever claims victim status first wins.

  6. The less powerful can now use the Internet to shame the powerful. This month we’ve two restaurant servers posting pictures of receipts showing the meager tips they got from wealthy people. First there was LeSean McCoy, the Eagles running back. And now there’s this receipt from a hedge funder who apparently tipped badly because the server, when he grabbed her ass, reacted like an actual person. Both shamees have tried to justify their behavior, though not, it seems, with much success.

  7. Chris G says:

    Good post.

    How about “willful ignorance shaming”?

    (I think the term “mental welfare queens” is a keeper.)

  8. Erin Jonaitis says:

    Relevant to your interests?

    (I hope this makes it through the spam filter! It’s a news story about an app that lets you report your water-wasting neighbors to the water agency. I’m not a bot, I swear.)

  9. […] if you care about women in STEM,” well, that’s “shaming” the guy, and we all know how awful “shaming” is. Obviously I disagree. If you think it was wrong to wear the shirt in the workplace in front of […]

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