It all started a couple of weeks ago with a heated discussion between a Maastricht PhD candidate and a UM professor on LinkedIn. The subject: when may you call yourself a real scientist? If you spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week working in your field and already have a considerable number of publications to your name? The view of professor Harald Schmidt (FHML). Or if, in addition to your passion for science, you also want a home life and don’t have a long list of scientific publications? The view of Katharine Bassil (FPN).
Not unfamiliar to Observant, having first been a student assistant and later a columnist, she approached the editors last week. Could she write a opinion article on a subject that deserved some attention from the UM community? She referred to the debate on LinkedIn and said she was worried about the harsh words from her opponent, whom she did not mention by name. They can “discourage” young researchers and create a “toxic environment”.
The editors’ answer was: yes, you can, also because this discussion fits in seamlessly with the project Recognition & Rewards of scientists. But then we should also ask Schmidt to give his opinion. We want to hear both sides of the LinkedIn dispute and share them. Both names should be published. “That sounds fair”, wrote the PhD candidate in reply. The professor agreed and so two opinion articles were published on our site (including a print screen of the LinkedIn discussion) with the usual intro by the editorial board last Thursday.
So far so good. Until a minor Twitter storm arose last weekend. Bassil’s piece received praise, but how could Observant do such a thing as to give this professor just as much space for his opinion, argued a shocked scientist from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). Doesn't journalistic responsibility mean that you have to draw the line when it comes to opinions “that are no longer legitimate”? And that you don’t give “bullies” a voice? This opinion also received the support from others in that same faculty.
Wait, what? Journalistic responsibility? That is in the first place that you try to be as objective or neutral as possible, that you apply the rule of listening to both sides, and try to bring as many relevant opinions as possible to the foreground, so that readers can form a judgement themselves (for example, as to whether someone is spouting nonsense or being a bully) and that an open debate can take place. Without prior censorship.
Because who determines whether an opinion is legitimate or not? A journalist should not take the place of a judge. Of course, there are limits to what we publish – indeed virus idiots, those who deny climate change and other facts no longer need a stage – but such limits have not been reached at all in this debate. Instead of silencing someone, it is better to listen and try to convince them with arguments. Something that Katharine Bassil does excellently. As befits a scientist.