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Sometimes an argument will arise between collaborators where two (or more) contrasted views or (mis)interpretations of a scientific issue exist. Sometimes both views are partially correct, sometimes they're both incorrect, and sometimes one is correct and the other is not.

Some people don't handle being wrong in a very "gracious" manner, even after realizing they are wrong, and will not admit their mistake. I have a previous experience with a more senior colleague who would not admit they were wrong even after confronted with a lot of evidence. I should also add that I was intimately familiar with the research problem at hand and they had just some very superficial knowledge of it, which probably led to their mistake. I suspect that at some point they realized they were wrong but were trying to hold the upper ground ("I'm right because I'm the more senior person") and "win" the argument. Also their ego got in the way of reason (not the first time that happened). The situation was very frustrating for me and things went sour with this person, not only because of this incident but also because of previous history.

I am facing the same problem again (with a different colleague who is also my senior) and would like to handle the situation in a less destructive manner. However, I cannot write a statement on a paper that I know to be wrong just to avoid hurting somebody's ego.

What is a good way to resolve the issue with a colleague who you know to be wrong, anticipating they may have a hard time admitting it?


Just to clarify (based on what I can read in the comments): my question is not about situations such as pointing out a mistake by the speaker at the end of a presentation, sometimes even with the malicious intention to embarrass a "competitor" (things you witness at conferences!). In such situations influencing factors are, e.g., present audience and lack of time to think things through. It's about stubbornly persisting on one's mistake even when confronted with evidence and given the time to think about it.

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    Ugh. People who put belief and/or pride over evidence has no place in STEM. – xDaizu Mar 22 '17 at 13:42
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    @xDaizu nor in ethnology, for that matter. – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 22 '17 at 13:57
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    @henning nor anywhere that what they say should be given any form of consideration at all. – Dan Neely Mar 22 '17 at 14:33
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    @DarrenRinger Most people might/will "bluster a bit" and initially deny they're wrong, especially if "put on the spot" but (hopefully) most people (especially those in STEM) will accept things (even if grudgingly) in the face of real evidence, and once they've calmed down and/or had a chance to think things through. I take "who put belief and/or pride over evidence" as referring to those that won't do this and continue to persist that they are right. – TripeHound Mar 22 '17 at 15:35
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    One tangential thing: take some time to consider whether they have a legitimate complaint/concern that you're not hearing because you misunderstand what they're intending to say. Someone can be absolutely wrong about something I understand well, but my own perspective can often be biased to see things from the context of my specialty. If they are in fact discussing something completely different, the communication gap results in us both thinking the other is obstinate, when really we're not actually having the same conversation. – Dan Bryant Mar 22 '17 at 16:31
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Use impersonal language

Hopefully this is obvious, but make sure that your language focuses on the ideas rather than the people. Rather than

I don't think you're grasping the subtleties of the situation

try

I think that there are some extra complications that need consideration in this case

Ask questions

Rather than taking a confrontational approach, try to adopt the role of the inquisitive student. Rather than

There is evidence in publications X and Y that directly contradicts what you are saying

try

What are your reasons for disagreeing with publications X and Y?

or

I'm having trouble understanding why the conclusions from publications X and Y do not apply here. Can you elaborate?

This will hopefully give your colleague a graceful way out without having to turn it into a matter of "you're wrong and I'm right". As a bonus, it also gives you a way out if it turns out you were wrong after all (however unlikely that is) or that you misunderstood your colleague's point. But as @R.M. and @CaptainEmacs have pointed out in the comments, take care not to overdo it, or you could come across as either clueless, or patronising.

Make someone else the scapegoat

Rather than voicing your concerns directly, put them in the mouth of a hypothetical reviewer. Rather than

I think there are these reasons for rejecting that argument

try

I think that a reviewer could object to that argument for [reasons]. I think we need to anticipate this using [different argument].

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    Good advice for rational people! – PsySp Mar 22 '17 at 12:17
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    @PsySp Hopefully of some use with "irrational" people as well... But yes, there will always be some people out there who will be awkward no matter how carefully you tread. – user2390246 Mar 22 '17 at 12:29
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    @PsySp One of the important things, though, is that you must avoid the other person coming under the impression that you are "treat[ing] them ... like infants". Any whiff of condescension and the other person is likely to get even more offended. - Best to avoid thinking of the interaction in such a manner, even privately/internally. – R.M. Mar 22 '17 at 13:33
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    Good advice and also R.M.'s comment. Careful with the Socratic method, people are not stupid. You can blame the reviewer (usually a good idea) for creating trouble, or also your own "stupidity" for not getting a point. The latter with care and spare, though, or people will start thinking you are really not up to their level of intellect. – Captain Emacs Mar 23 '17 at 9:17
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    The Socratic method can imply a patronising undercurrent. "People are not stupid" - what I mean, they can notice that and feel manipulated (in fact, rightly so). If used honestly in the pursuit of truth rather than for ego matches, my experience is that it works ok, but unfortunately, there are considerable Socratically packaged manipulation techniques in rhetorics which, for an educated listener, won't go down well. – Captain Emacs Mar 23 '17 at 15:34
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User2390246's answer offers great advice if you need the other person to confess that they are wrong. I just want to add that this is not always necessary. In that case, the best way to deal with your stubborn interlocutor is to agree to disagree.

I can think of three situations in which it is desirable to have the other person concede an error:

  1. Improving your interlocutor's knowledge: You are essentially providing a free service to the other person by pointing out their mistakes. It is their decision whether to accept this service or not. If they don't, agree to disagree. You certainly can't be expected to make someone else happy against their wish.
  2. Improving collective knowledge: If you are working together, there are certain issues on which you have to come to an agreement -- at the latest, when it comes to writing down research findings and their interpretation. Other issues may be tangential and can be allowed to rest, or they may allow different interpretations, which may lend themselves to be framed as a discussion of the results. However, if you are not collaborating on the same project, there is even less reason to agree.
  3. Status signaling: Insisting on a wrong (or weak) point can be perceived as being necessary to protect social status. A senior person who feels their status is already precarious may feel "called out" by a junior person who points out their mistake. The junior person may want to consider if they want to go through the trouble of holding their ground, or if they wouldn't rather play along in the status game, while distancing themselves internally. ("I know I'm right, but if you need to save face, that's fine with me.") Of course this is not an either/or question but a matter of degree.

If you don't really need to protect your status, and if by insisting on the truth you neither realistically improve your interlocutor's nor your collective knowledge, it is best to agree to disagree.

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    I agree with you (+1) but this is not always possible. I tend to "concede the point" if I see the other person may feel threatened, the problem is when we are discussing about some issue that will either make it to a paper or influence the course of the research we're carrying out. – Miguel Mar 22 '17 at 14:19
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    @Miguel I can see how then you rely on a more "conceding" attitude of your co-worker. I thought it still useful to point out when this might or might not be the case. In your particular situation (2.) you could consider which disagreements are fundamental and which can be discussed "from different sides" in the publication. This is something that reviewers with different backgrounds will also like (which makes it easier to sell to your colleague). However, clearly it won't completely resolve your problem. – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 22 '17 at 14:25
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    When you agree to disagree, is it reasonable in some fields to consider submitting 2 papers (say a research result and a dissenting 'letter' or 'communication') and ask the editor to consider publishing them in the same issue? – Qsigma Mar 24 '17 at 10:28
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Given that the top voted comment states that "People who put belief and/or pride over evidence has[sic] no place in STEM," and other answers have given diplomatic approaches for bridging the gap, I would like to address why such a situation might occur. In particular, this situation is reminiscent of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

While that book did spawn generations of middle-management rambling about "paradigm shifts" and "thinking outside the box," it contains a very fundamental insight: as much as we would love to believe that we are purely logical researchers driven by objectivity, we are (un)fortunately loosely contained sacks of meat. We are still governed by heuristics and social dynamics, even if we try to place a higher emphasis on logical reasoning. The history of science does not read "Darwin published On the Origin of Species and nobody ever questioned natural selection ever again" or "Einstein wrote a couple papers in 1905 and every physicist immediately agreed with his views and threw away their old texts."

However, Kuhn does give you some solace: eventually the old guard will die out and the new theory will be regarded as the dominant paradigm. Unfortunately, you will also age until you in turn become the old guard, arguing about why the new upstart theory can't possibly be correct.

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    +1 "loosely contained sacks of meat" made me bust out laughing. – Carrie Kendall Mar 23 '17 at 18:47
  • "Unfortunately, you will also age" - empathy is a helpful thing. – flow2k Sep 15 at 20:17
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I am reminded of a quote from the Tao Te Ching: "He just does not contend, so no one can contend with him".

From my perspective, having had similar issues in the past, I came to realize it was me generating the issue. This is why it keeps recurring. It will keep recurring until you resolve whatever it is inside of you that is combative or argumentative or a part of you that threatens people or whatever it is.

Of course, I'm sure they are wrong, I'm not denying that, but that isn't really the issue. It isn't their wrongness that's generating this, again I say: it would not keep happening otherwise. Their behavior is in response to something you're doing. Even the details are the same, senior person, at work, ego, factual error etc. Best of luck.

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    It will keep recurring until you resolve whatever it is inside of you that is combative or argumentative or a part of you that threatens people or whatever it is. You can be right... and wrong... at the same time. Just ask my fiance. (ba-dum-ching). But seriously... There comes a time when you have to decide which is more important: Being right or being happy. You can be right and in constant struggle... or put your opinion forward and let those "in power" make their own decisions. – WernerCD Mar 23 '17 at 1:53
4

Let some time go by; strengthen your relationship in other ways; let humor diffuse the tension that's causing the logjam. Somehow this person needs to let go of some inner schematic view that's interfering with his perceptions and interpretations. Humor can work wonders. But I'm not sure you can plan it. When I've been able to use it, I had to just let it happen, rather than making it happen.

3

The desire to be correct, and to be seen to be correct, can be overwhelming.

If you have evaluated the necessity of pressing your point until something's got to give - and you really must follow through with your point, and your own ego and facts are in order.

His ego likely has a 'sunken cost' on his opinions, and his ego might appreciate a way out of it.

Is the same level of defiance present in front of others? Has there been an opportunity to have a franker discussion or to level with him?

A professional disagreement can be maintained wholeheartedly if handled professionally.

If you are certain about your own standing - and are yourself committed - then maintain your stance. Maintain! If circumstances compel you to push forward with your view instead then be sure to shape it accordingly. If his view threatens to drag you backwards then by all means be defensive.

I hope this would not constitute handling the problem in a destructive manner, in your opinion. What I mean is nevertheless be prepared to categorically destroy his viewpoint: This is only in a professional setting with time-critical consequences - in any other situation simply agree to disagree. Arm yourself fully with facts and have at him.

Basically, I am advocating 'having teeth'.

Henning's third point, Status signalling, is of particular note:

Insisting on a wrong (or weak) point can be perceived as being necessary to protect social status. A senior person who feels their status is already precarious may feel "called out" by a junior person who points out their mistake. The junior person may want to consider if they want to go through the trouble of holding their ground, or if they wouldn't rather play along in the status game, while distancing themselves internally. ("I know I'm right, but if you need to save face, that's fine with me.") Of course this is not an either/or question but a matter of degree.

You definitely want to pick your battles carefully. Be prepared to back down... temporarily.

1

tl;dr: Ask another coworker to pose the same matter to your senior.


Note that sometimes the person who is telling them they are wrong matters.

Some people will happily accept being told they are wrong by someone they trust/respect, but if they are told the same thing by someone they don't trust/respect/like then they will argue until the cows come home even if they know full well that they are wrong.

So one solution might be to get someone else to tell them.

If you tell one of your coworkers about your situation (preferably someone who also knows about the subject area) and can prove to them that you are right, they can go and present the same argument separately.

Firstly it's harder to argue against two people in agreement, so having two separate cases of someone telling your senior that they're wrong might lead your senior to change their mind.

As my earlier comments may have suggested, if this works it's also possible that it's actually you or something about you that your senior colleague has an issue with. It might not be the case, but if this is a recurring thing then it might be worth looking in to why that might be the case. (I've had similar issues with students at school/college in the past and have found this to be the case. Getting people they did not have issues with to present the problem as if it was their idea worked nearly every time.)

And lastly if the senior still does not back down, that will show that it is indeed a problem on their part (refusal to accept being wrong) and there's little that can be done about that.


Post Script: Originally this was a comment but I decided to try posing it as an answer.

  • I've run into similar situations, where I was brought in to manage one aspect of the project. What I didn't know was that they had developed some jargon in the years they had been working on it, which conflicted with terms from my field. But I suspect where I really went wrong was that I tried to jump straight to a solution based on what I understood the issue to be, rather than go through and get buy-in at each step. (I was overseeing the long-term archiving of the project's data, and saw that they didn't have checksums ... which they saw as unnecessary as they were using RAID6) – Joe Mar 24 '17 at 14:02
  • But going step-by-step would've also meant that I could've figured out where the disagreement was, and I might've been able to figure out some of the terminology disagreements and have had a chance to re-word what I was saying. – Joe Mar 24 '17 at 14:04
0

So,

Some people... being wrong... will not admit their mistake... [when] confronted...

Wow, really? :-) Frankly, I think your question answers itself. Think about it.

... their ego got in the way of reason (not the first time that happened).

without considering any specific case (including not the ones your mentioned) - are you sure your own ego is not partly in play here?

PS - That's not to say that you weren't perfectly in the right; I assume you were. The thing is, in interpersonal relations, that does not necessarily matters all that much. Even if we like to think of ourselves as scientists who are "above this" somehow.

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Don't let your ego win you over to fighting the battle you can never win.

So they are wrong, you know they are wrong. However you can't stop them spreading the wrongness if they truly believe it.

Let them, others will notice they are wrong too, in time.

You say about how their ego won't let it go that they are wrong about something, but you're ego is what is making you follow it up all the time. If it's important that you work with this person, accept they are wrong.

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    You are getting voted down because the OP pointed out why it is important that he cannot just let this go. – Michael Potter Mar 22 '17 at 17:31
  • Why is it important though, is it the ego issue? – djsmiley2k - CoW Mar 22 '17 at 18:27
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    He made it very clear: This is a matter of getting accurate information into a published paper. – Michael Potter Mar 22 '17 at 19:25
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    @djsmiley2k This is science. There are things about which one can argue or disagree. But there are things which are just plainly wrong, and they should never knowingly enter a paper, ego or not ego. – Captain Emacs Mar 23 '17 at 9:19

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