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Feeling like a pariah (even when you’re not)

Jessica Hullman wrote this memoir of her interactions with the graphics and visualization research community, and one thing that struck me was this bit describing an event from 2011, when she was a graduate student:

There was one weird moment, though . . . I couldn’t help but notice a look of horror coming over the face of someone else at the table as we were talking. . . . It was an unsettling moment, because I sensed it was about me [Hullman]. But I had no idea who the person was or how it could be so urgent.

As I was boarding the plane headed back home, I saw an email from a friend, with a link in it, saying something like, you might want to read this. It was a very critical article about my paper . . . going through the argument point by point to dismantle it, and ultimately concluding it was nonsense. I remember thinking, this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. I would rather lose a friendship or be dumped by someone I really cared about than have someone attack my work. It felt a bit like the world was coming to take away the one thing I cared about.

In the weeks that followed, a few people in the visualization community wrote blog posts defending the paper, leading to a broader discussion in comments. I was again moved, this time by the fact that strangers were sticking up for my work, but hated being the topic of public discussion. My mentors pointed out that it’s unlikely that someone would write a scathing critique if what I said hadn’t seemed important. So I tried to shrug it off . . .

And then this from two years later:

That year I [Hullman] was presenting a paper from my work while interning at MSR on the role of sequence in interpretation of narrative visualization. Needing to present a paper in the main track made me realize that I was less over my 2011 criticism than I thought I was. I wanted to do research and see what others were doing, but I had no desire to get up and share anything of my own. I remember telling Robert Kosara at the conference how I was dreading presenting. He was encouraging, assuring me that the community accepted my work, after all they were publishing it. I very much appreciated these words, since somewhere in my mind I still saw myself as a pariah. . . .

All this reminded me vividly of my own feelings in the mid-1990s. At that point I was a young untenured faculty member, and I’d been involved in some research conflicts, including some unpleasant experiences (see part 1 here, for example), but overall I felt like my work was getting respected. But then I started getting the side-eye from the other professors in the statistics department where I worked. They were rude and dismissive about my research—even some of my friends in the department were very disparaging—the other faculty were telling Ph.D. students not to take my classes, and then a couple of them wrote a very negative promotion review, which was bad enough in itself but even worse in that their report had lots of false statements, which implied that they didn’t go to the trouble of reading my work carefully or were just ok with lying about it. At first I thought it was a good thing that they made these factual errors and unsupported claims, as I could refute them! I wrote a long letter in response and circulated it among the faculty, and they just didn’t care. In retrospect, this reminds me a bit of some recent political events where people in power first tell a flat-out lie and then cover for each other rather than admit they were ever wrong. It was an interesting bit of group dynamics, in that the vast majority of my colleagues there did not ever have to be in the position of actually endorsing the lies about my work; they just were able to not think about it and move on. There was no exchange of articles or courtroom-type setting where the authors of the lies had to directly defend or abandon those statements, and I guess the others in the department had some sort of cynical view that the details didn’t matter. Or, more precisely, they had a consensus that they didn’t want to think about the ugly thing that had happened, so they’d look away.

I guess I should interrupt at this point and recognize that, although this was a big event in my life, it’s nothing compared to the millions of people around the country and around the world who are regularly hassled by authority figures at their jobs or on the street. I was, and am, a comfortable white-collar worker. So please read my venting as representing one person’s story, orders of magnitude more mild than others’, and it’s just my problem that it remains vivid in my mind.

In any case, things ended up just fine for me. My point is, after what happened in my department, I was really paranoid. I was sure that those coworkers who were ready to lie about me within the department were also going around the country poisoning everyone’s view of my work, and that everyone would take these people’s word for it. A couple months after all this happened, a statistician from another university invited me to give a talk at some conference, and I was overcome with gratitude that at least one person, somewhere, wasn’t blackballing me. He was pretty baffled by over-the-top reaction to such a simple invitation.

It was a weird time. I still thought my work was good, and I liked my research collaborators, but it really felt like there was an effort going on behind my back to disparage me. It took awhile for that feeling to go away. Actually, I doubt my lying colleagues were spreading lots of lies about me outside my institution; it was probably the opposite, that they knew they were lying and wanted to keep the whole thing quiet. It wasn’t anything personal about me they were just trying to get out of this situation in the easiest way possible, and not contesting the lies seemed like the most direct solution for them. But I didn’t really think it through that way at the time. I was operating in scientist mode (trying to uncover the truth) not in negotiation mode (where you try to think through the motivations of others). I’m not claiming this as a virtue on my part—there are situations, and this was one of them, where negotiation mode is important—I’m just trying to understand why the twists in that story kept surprising me.

Anyway, all this gives me a feeling that I understand what Hullman is talking about in the above-linked post, about feeling like a pariah and being grateful to people who just treated me like a normal person and not someone to be shunned. One of the joys in life is to be treated like a normal member of a group where each of us is special in our own way but where we can relax a bit within the group. Welcome bubbles of calm extracted, sometimes with great effort, from the entropic sea of struggle in uncontrolled social networks.

18 Comments

  1. paul alper says:

    From Wikipedia

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraiyar

    It turns out that “pariah” may come via the Tamil language of India: “Paraiyar as a word referring to a occupational group first appears in the second century CE writings—According to this hypothesis, the Paraiyars were originally a community of drummers who performed at auspicious events like weddings and funerals…Some other writers, such as Gustav Solomon Oppert, have derived the name from the Tamil word poraian, the name of a regional subdivision mentioned by ancient Tamil grammarians, or the Sanskrit pahariya, meaning ‘hill man’…The literature has references to the Tamil caste system and refers to a number of ‘low-born’ groups variously called Pulaiyar and Kinaiyar…one of the drums called kiṇai in the literature later came to be called paṟai and the people that played the drum were paraiyar (plural of paraiyan)…Paraiyars belong to the Valangai (‘Right-hand caste faction’).”

    “this led to pariah entering the English language as ‘a synonym for the socially ostracised and the morally depraved.'”

  2. Thank you for this post. I agree, one of the joys of life is to be treated like a normal member of a group–not *just* a group member, but as someone who, as you say, can relax within the group instead of worrying about sudden ostracism. There’s something weird about shunning, in that it involves (and requires) not telling the shunned person what is going on. Nor is there necessarily a good reason behind it; it happens, and then those who participate get too lazy or scared to backtrack. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would be a tad better, if the reasons were made absolutely clear–and then, if the shunned person could refute them, the shunning would cease. But still better: don’t shun, except in extreme circumstances where the reasons are glaring and conversations have failed.

  3. The part about your colleagues not really caring about your letter rebutting things resonates with me. Worse than pariah is feeling like you’ve been classified and written off somehow before you’ve had a chance to explain yourself.

    Also it’s funny, reading this post I realized I haven’t really outgrown feeling like a pariah. It’s just for different reasons now, though perhaps stemming from the same underlying tendency to want to challenge the status quo. And I care a lot less now.

    • Andrew says:

      Jessica:

      The other funny thing is realizing that I’m older now than most of those nasty colleagues were back in 1995. At the time, I was stunned that these senior figures were acting that way, but now I’m like: sure, I can believe it. I’m still figuring things out now, so no surprise that a bunch of insecure guys in their forties couldn’t figure things out back then!

      Regarding challenging the status quo, recall our discussion about the insider-outsider perspective.

  4. Michael Nelson says:

    There’s something that goes unsaid in Jessica’s memoir, and in this post: whether the criticism of her paper was meritless and/or vindictive. This post kinda gives that impression, through Andrew’s comparison of Jessica’s experience with his own experience of being the target of colleagues’ vindictive lies. Clearly, he was, while not a pariah, unfairly persecuted within his department.

    Jessica’s experience, on the other hand, based on how she describes it, is an example of science progressing as it’s supposed to. In fact, unless Jessica left out significant details, the critical article sounds not unlike a post Andrew might make here. Her reaction of feeling like a pariah seems to have come from being a young grad student at the time, and from the neck-snapping turn from universal praise to sharp criticism. But my sense from her blog post was that this was a learning experience, if one that left unfortunate scars of unwarranted self-doubt. Is that an accurate take?

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      > the critical article sounds not unlike a post Andrew might make here

      The article seems to be this one: https://www.perceptualedge.com/articles/visual_business_intelligence/visual_difficulties.pdf

      “My intention in this article is not to revile the authors of this paper. Point out their errors, yes, but not demean or discourage them. It isn’t fair to Jessica Hullman, the student author of this paper, that her work is being scrutinized publicly. This paper should have never seen the light of day. With proper academic oversight and guidance, Ms. Hullman might have been directed into a worthwhile research project, conducted with scientific rigor. Had that happened, rather than pointing out her errors I might be showcasing her work. What bothers me is not the failure of this one study, but the excessive prevalence of poorly done research in the field of information visualization. How do these efforts get past the watchful eye of an experienced advisor? How do they get past VisWeek’s review process? How do they get chosen as examples of our best work? Once a paper is presented at a major conference and published in an academic journal, it lives forever, part of our venerable body of knowledge. Others will cite it to support their causes. Others will draw inspiration from it and extend its errors through their own misguided efforts. Even worse, from my perspective, data visualization practitioners will follow its advice.“

      • I remember hating part of that quote when I first read it! I don’t disagree, it wasn’t a good paper to hold up as an exemplar. But he frames me as someone who had no autonomy and no idea I was saying something provocative, which was not true.

        Also reminds me that Few did several years later, in commentary on his blog, lmischaracterize the situation where with a look of horror he tried to pull other people out of a conversation with me, saying instead that I had boldly walked up and demanded someone’s attention. Though as I recall he could no longer remember my name at that point. Ah, the good old days, all recounted on the internet.

      • Andrew says:

        Carlos:

        Interesting quote. It is indeed uncomfortably close in tone to some things I’ve written. Kinda unpleasant to see it coming from another direction, but I guess it’s good for me to reflect a bit about what that means regarding my own writings.

        One interesting bit in the above quote is this line: “How do they get past VisWeek’s review process?” The idea that we should be surprised by what gets past a review process . . . that’s a very naive attitude that I could imagine someone holding in 2011 but not so much today, when we’re all much more aware that the review process is a crapshoot.

        Separately from all this, I agree with Jessica that it’s unpleasant for Few to write about the first author of that paper as if, just because she is a student, she has no agency. Students come into a PhD program with lots of ideas of their own!

        • jim says:

          “How do they get past VisWeek’s review process?”

          When I was in grad school disagreements were strong. People said that kind stuff all the time. On regional field trips it was common for vehement disagreements to erupt into red-faced arguments. It wasn’t unheard of for people to stand up at meetings and say “That’s bullshit!!”.

          I can’t assess this guy’s claims but obviously he disagrees with the work that was presented! Personally I think it would be better if there was more, not less, of this, then people wouldn’t be so sensitive to it. We’ve become a passive-aggressive society, where disagreement isn’t allowed to be in the open. That leads to the kind of sniveling ostracism Andrew experienced.

          • I agree. It’s not fun when you’re one of the few cases where it does occur, and you know it shouldn’t just be you. But direct critiques should be normalized so it’s not such a shock when it does happen. There’s always a chance that the person critiquing has some personal agenda or has chosen an easier target, like a grad student. But we should be able to recognize what’s useful and what’s potentially driven by a conflict of interest and still learn from it.

            • jim says:

              “It’s not fun when you’re one of the few cases where it does occur, and you know it shouldn’t just be you.”

              Yes, for sure.

              As far as open conflict goes in science, I think it’s beneficial not so that people need to get used to being berated but in building people’s confidence that they can respond to it. If you’ve seen it and been there before, it’s not so much of a gut punch. My experience is that kind of thing is almost always associated with some kind of personal issue – like the guy that attacked you was pissed off because you got an award and he didn’t!

              In your circumstance also the guy trashed you in print where it’s difficult to respond. At a talk or something you can defend yourself – and you can also get people’s reaction to the situation. But in print it could be weeks or months before you can fight back and you don’t have the benefit of seeing what other people think as the situation unfolds.

        • Antony Unwin says:

          The line “How do they get past VisWeek’s review process?” was surely not meant to be taken seriously. As Andrew implies, we should never be surprised by what gets past a review process. We should also not be surprised at irony being misunderstood.

          Everyone is initially upset by criticism of their work. First authors have agency, but their co-authors do too. As a reviewer I often see papers that give the impression that the student first author has a good idea, but has not been properly supported. In those cases you should call out the senior co-authors. Like irony, that should be done with care, and it is not always easy.

          • Name withheld by request says:

            I don’t agree with the notion of “call out the senior co-authors” or indeed with any “call out” (btw I detest that childish phrase) of anyone at all. Maybe I have an idealized view of the scientific process but I believe directly addressing the supposed failings of authors, reviewers, etc. and speculating about things like their agency and motivation is ugly, not helpful and and should be beneath the dignity of any reviewer who genuinely wants to advance the science.

            Andrew crosses that line in his blogging at times but I suppose a blog post is not a review per se. Any published review or commentary in the scientific literature should address the work and it’s shortcomings, full stop.

    • That’s an interesting question, and I think your observation is pretty accurate.

      The main argument in the critiqued paper was about how stimulating active processing should be a goal with visualization and that it’s not necessarily equivalent to finding the most minimal visualization design, which I stand by. The paper described that “we conceptualize visual difficulties as the set of beneficial learning and cognitive processing obstructions that may be applied to static and interactive information visualizations” and several of the mechanisms we summarize as part of this main argument, like making use of internal representations and self explanation, are pretty well established in cognitive psych (and have led to more empirical evidence that they can be useful for things like recalling things about data, and continue to be brought up in visualization research to this day). But the term “visual difficulties” was a misnomer as often these effects were not visual, and in general compared to my standards now the exposition was sloppy. The whole framing overemphasized one line of work on perceptual disfluency (which actually isn’t a huge part of the paper. And then after the paper was published some of that work (on hard to read fonts) hasn’t replicaetd I believe. So, it was definitely a paper that deserved some criticism. What’s harder for me to answer is whether it was less valuable or more worthy of criticism then the average paper published in that journal 10 years ago. I would say probably not. It was more controversial, and more audacious though, and I’m pretty sure that’s partly why it got it extra attention in the first place. And the fact that it won an award.

      But really I’m not the best person to ask – some other visualization researchers should weigh in!

  5. somebody says:

    When I was taking a microeconomics at Berkeley, at the start of general equilibrium theory when introducing the representative agent assumption, I remember the professor asking who was teaching macro theory this year. When the other students responded (I don’t remember who it was), he immediately shouted “I hate that guy.” I found it amusing at the time–obviously, he’s joking, and isn’t actually shit-talking a colleague publicly in front of fifty or so PhD students. Knowing more about academia in general and the environment in Evans Hall in specific, maybe he wasn’t.

    It strikes me that this kind of thing is utterly unacceptable once you leave academia. The ability to separate personal attacks from disagreements is pretty crucial to not getting fired in industry settings.

  6. Unfortunately most of us experience things like this, being outed from the tribe by the tribe’s thought leaders.

    My biggest one followed the publication of a paper arguing that it would be a good idea to investigate statistical methods to jointly assess similar studies https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/abs/10.7326/0003-4819-107-2-224

    At the time just about every faculty member and grad student in statistics and biostatistics at the University of Toronto thought the idea was terribly naïve and hence an embarrassment to the university. One of the main criticisms they brought forth made it clear few had actually read the full paper. It was that something had been overlooked in the paper but it had not. Most likely, they felt I was not capable of doing such work and skimmed the paper looking for confirmation.

    This maybe related – starting at 16:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ArVh3Cj9rw distinguishing social reasoning from scientific reasoning.

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