Science

Ranting critics on your timeline

Scientists,
hang ’em all

Scientists’ work is paid for by the public. But what happens when the public doesn’t respond kindly to scientists having an opinion they disagree with? ‘You’d probably describe yourself as a critic. I think you’re a murderer.’
9 November om 17:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.
November 9 at 17:10 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.

Door Christien Boomsma

9 November om 17:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

November 9 at 17:10 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

‘Unfortunately, too many people still take @Lbatstra seriously… I think she should be ritually slaughtered’, Twitter user @spekkie70 wrote a while ago.

Spekkie70 disagreed with clinical psychologist Laura Batstra, who says that hyperactive children are too easily diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication for it. She says the children aren’t the issue here. Rather, it’s our demanding and intolerant society that leads to the wrong diagnosis.

Twitter user Spekkie70 wasn’t the only one who was angry at her. ‘I almost killed myself because of witch-hunt-promoting troublemakers like you. I was so ashamed of my ADHD diagnosis that I was afraid to take extra medication as I grew up. You’d probably describe yourself as a critic, someone who goes deeper. I think you’re a murder… You are a monster’, another criticaster wrote. And what about this one: ‘You thought it would be a good idea to write down your own narrow-minded ideas and see if there was a market for them?’

Parent associations

‘I don’t get as many of those messages anymore, thank God’, Batstra says. ‘But when my book Hoe voorkom je ADHD? Door de diagnose niet te stellen (How to prevent ADHD? By not diagnosing it) was just published, I got a slew of them. Particularly parent associations were extremely scathing. I often wondered: if I’d known, would I have still written my book? Because I really didn’t enjoy the criticism from all those angry parents.’

I did wonder if someone was planning to throw a chair at my head during a lecture

Laura Batstra

But, she says, so also understood where people were coming from. She may have been convinced of her ideas, but these parents were clinging on to the ADHD classification. She was taking away something that gave them peace of mind and understanding. That made them very angry. ‘So angry that some of them threatened me’, she says. ‘As a down to earth Northerner I’m not too concerned, but I did wonder if someone was planning to throw a chair at my head during a lecture.’

What did help was the fact that a lot of people actually agreed with her. Spekkie70 may have called for her ritual slaughter, but others felt supported by Batstra. ‘People kept telling me that I was wrong, that I was harming my child… Your book tells my story, so thank you!’

Sensitive themes

Scientists are increasingly often confronted by a public that doesn’t like their research, or the viewpoints their research propagates. Like biologist Chris Smit: he studies the return of wolves to the Netherlands, but recently, he also argued that domestic cats shouldn’t be allowed to roam free. 

Professor of law and society Jan Brouwer was lambasted when he said that many corona measures were unconstitutional. Even chemist Sijbren Otto occasionally receives worried emails from people who say that his attempts to create life in a test tube are godless. These are all sensitive themes that are the subject of lively social debates.

You’re insane! I can tell from your beard and your eyes!

Chris Smit

Not nearly all responses are negative, though. Smit even received more support than hate mail for his opinion on cats; Brouwer witnessed a clear change towards the end of the lockdown. Initially, the public was ready to pillory him, but a few weeks later, people praised and supported him for his views. It took years before the ADHD discussion ‘favoured’ Batstra, but in the end, it did.

Nevertheless, the criticism and attacks can be a lot to deal with.

No social media

‘You’re insane! I can tell from your beard and your eyes!’ someone told Smit not ten seconds after the Nieuwsuur episode on his viewpoints. ‘I’m ashamed to have studied in Groningen’, someone emailed Brouwer.

Some scientists protect themselves by avoiding social media. Smit deliberately avoided Facebook and Twitter. ‘People were pretty nasty after Nieuwsuur and Jinek.’ Brouwer realised years ago that social media wasn’t for him. Sijbren Otto has no account, either.

But it’s impossible to avoid public debate, especially when it was happening in their inbox. The interaction is in fact valuable. ‘I do think that people who take the time and effort to get your email address and write to you tend to think a little deeper about things’, says Smit. ‘I’ve got some strange responses, but some people actually had good arguments.’

Discussion

Brouwer has made it a habit to respond to people. ‘People almost always tell me: how lovely that you took the time to answer. I understand it now’, he says. ‘And that’s after they called me all kinds of names!’ One email exchange even ended with the erstwhile critic offering him the use of his second house in France.

How lovely that you took the time to answer. I understand it now

Jan Brouwer

‘Getting emails from people who aren’t in the same field as I am can really make me think’, says Sijbren Otto. He occasionally receives correspondence from Christians. He and his critics rarely end up agreeing; their points of view are simply too fundamentally different. ‘I remember thinking I didn’t know the Bible said such mean things! I didn’t respond to that particular email. When people are certain there was a creator and I tell them that I don’t believe in that, we’re never going to agree.’

But whenever he can, he enters into the discussion. He wants to clarify what he does and explain what his research will, but also certainly won’t, lead to. ‘People tend to understand better once I’ve explained it to them. Sharing new discoveries with not just your colleagues but a wider audience as well is a part of science.’

He even makes it a little easier for people sometimes. ‘I’ll explain to them that just because I’m making life in a test tube, that doesn’t mean that God didn’t create life as well’, he says. ‘When a chicken lays an egg, it becomes a new chicken. Except I’m not laying eggs and I’m not creating chickens.’

Time and energy

For Batstra, interacting with people lies at the core of her work. ‘My research has its roots in society, and it is also for society’, she says. ‘It’s easier to just stay in your own little cocoon, but that will make you complacent.’

I didn’t know the Bible said such mean things!

Sybren Otto

At the same time, there is little room for the time and energy the debate takes in a culture where scientists are judged by the money they bring, the books they write, and the articles they publish. ‘Interaction with the public, visiting schools; these things take up so much time. People have been a little bit more appreciative of it lately, but making an impact is still something you’re expected to do on the side’, says Batstra.

She’s become a little more cautious over the years. Not that she hides her opinion. She’s not that kind of woman. Besides, she feels it’s her job to share her knowledge and contribute to important social debate. ‘But I’m a little more subtle in how I say things. I no longer say that medication is the easy way out, but rather that I understand that they can be useful, but…’ 

Smit makes sure he doesn’t make any blunders. Every time he expresses a view, he makes sure his arguments are more to the point. ‘I have to make a good impression. I shouldn’t fall prey to untruths or carelessness.’

One time, he suggested that people who didn’t want to keep their cat inside were better off getting a rabbit. ‘But then the president of the rabbit association came for me.’

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