The Culture of Chemistry: Asking Questions in Public Considered Harmful?

March 16, 2010

A recent thread on Reddit Chemistry put into black-and-white something I've wondered about for awhile now. The discussion topic was Chempedia Lab, and one of the commenters threw this into the mix:

... My suspicion is that any chemist out of school is afraid to ask a question, or even provide an answer, for fear of being wrong. There is no upside for a professional chemist to give away his opinion for all to see forever (or admit to the world he/she doesn't know something), but there is a tremendous downside of potential embarrassment for getting something wrong and never being able to retract it. Retired chemist would be a good resource.

So my advice would be to allow contributors to edit and/or delete their comments. The best would be to allow people to post anonymously.

And a bit later in the thread...

... I always enjoyed discussion with colleagues. However, I have run into way too many that don't openly share their thought, whether for losing their competitive edge, or for political reasons, or for fear of being wrong.

Also, a lot of chemists will NEVER ask a question (except privately to someone they trust). You see, they are the "experts", and so many fear to admit that they don't know something. Silly, I know, but very widespread.

BTW, it's hard to be wrong for tem [sic] minutes when the internet preserves your conversation forever. Still, I love learning and solving problems, so I like to think that I don't fall in that category.

I can see how somebody looking in from the outside might consider statements like this very hard to believe. After all, scientist are professional question-askers, aren't they? The scientific method is nothing more than a tool for answering questions - right?

Unfortunately, I've seen the attitude the commenter describes firsthand, and on multiple occasions and settings. This attitude can be found both in academics and in industry, and on all positions of the payscale. It has nothing to do with being online, as most of my experience with it has been in small groups and seminars. It's an observation for which I don't have a good explanation, but I know it's real.

By the way, activity on Chempedia Lab has picked up considerably over the last week. For those who have taken the plunge - you folks rock. For those who haven't - it's never too late.

And for the record, you can edit your question or answer on Chempedia Lab at any time. You can even delete them if you choose.

Maybe asking and answering questions in public has a future in chemistry after all.