Please secure your own mask before helping those around you

An utterance on scientific practice reform

Image credit: Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Trigger Warnings: Mass transit, Air catastrophes, Open science

I’ve been thinking about methodological reform in the sciences (in general) and psychology (in specific) a lot lately. Much of my thinking is indebted to Danielle Navarro’s, so really you’re better off going and reading her posts honestly… but anyhow. An analogy recently got wedged in my head and this is how I’m choosing to get it out.

Imagine, for the moment that our scientific endeavour is a plane. Regrettably, sometimes things go wrong with planes. This might be because of simple wear-and-tear or defective parts, neglect and carelessness, and sometimes it’s because there are malign incentives for people to harm our plane. However it comes about doesn’t really matter, it only matters how we act after we discover this problem that really makes a difference. Someone needs to do something, because Superman is not coming.

Now when something goes wrong in an airplane (i.e. a discipline), there’s a good chance most passengers (scholars) won’t even realise. Even when people do realise, there’s mostly nothing that you (jammed in cattle class between a screaming child and a person who has no demonstrable understanding of personal space) can do to appreciably fix this problem. If an engine fails, or a window pops out causing a decompression of the cabin, really it’s up to the team that have been doing upkeep on the plane (publishers), the pilots (journal editors), and the air traffic controllers (funding bodies) to have any meaningful impact on how bad this situation ends up getting1. Does the plane land and lead to investigation and process reforms? Or does it crash in a firey cataclysm that takes you and your fellow passengers into retirement? Let’s be assured that you’re not helping from 62F, and if you do try to help land the plane, or even just try to inform everyone about the status of the plane what you’re doing is not helping. There is no place for heroes in Economy class.

But, as the rumbles and thuds issue through the plane and the air starts leaking out of the plane, masks descend from the overhead compartment, and if you were paying attention to the safety briefing you’ll know what you have to do next.

Pull down on the mask, pull it over your face, tighten the strap, and importantly secure your mask before helping those around you.

There are some very good reasons for this instruction, in the context of a decompression you are likely to lose coordination and consciousness before you can help someone else and then fix your own self. Let’s consider that instruction for a moment.

First, we must care for ourselves. Obviously there’s a self-care / welfare interpretation, and that should matter too, but let’s also consider the importance of focussing on our own problems. Assuming the “people in charge” get this plane on the ground safely, it isn’t going to help you if you’ve been flung against the cabin roof like a ragdoll because you didn’t have your seatbelt secured tightly around your waist; and your head has been clobbered against the seat in front, because you didn’t adopt your brace position; and you’ve asphyxiated because you were too busy telling everyone how bad it all was instead of putting your mask on. Even with systemic changes, your survival is in your hands and you should ensure you’re doing everything you can on that front. Think about what you could be doing now to make your position better, listen to the cabin crew (i.e. people like statisticians or modelling experts who are specialists in the tools you depend on) when they’re telling you about the safety features, especially if you think you already know, and then take actions to improve your position.

But then, once you are certain you’re doing what you can to get your house in order, take note of the implicit instruction in the second half “…before helping those around you”. This isn’t negotiable, you are obliged to help those around you. But we owe it to be gentle with those going through this situation2, because it’s not something we ever prepared ourselves for, and we all need help getting ready for landing wherever the “people in charge” take us. If circumstances have resulted in them being less prepared for this situation than you, and your first urge is to tell them they’re bad people for not putting on their masks, get in the sea.

"Mansplaining crows"“You should have been listening during the safety briefing, Janet!”

Finally, once we get this plane on the ground (or maybe if you’re waiting for your flight) when you hear about another plane in trouble, maybe we can start wondering why air travel doesn’t seem safe anymore and seeing if we can do something about that. Eventually they’re going to call boarding on your next flight, and you would want other people calling for broader reform rather than calling you out for your choice of carrier, the seat you chose, and what survival gear you packed.

The “Quiet parts” out loud

In case you want the short version without the gratious analogy, here it is.

It doesn’t matter how we got here, just how we get out of here, and prevent being here again.

There are no saviours. Anyone making themselves out to be a saviour should be treated with the same level of kind caution as you would provide to someone claiming to be the messiah in the local hardware store.

Editors, Publishers, and Funders need to solve this, because it’s their goddamn jobs. We have publication bias because of them; If funders prioritised reproducibility, we wouldn’t live in this timeline. If they broke it, they should fix it.

Don’t be an arsehole. Did we really need to say this? It sadly seems so.

Fix yourself first. Spend the time to learn what you could be doing better, work on that first and foremost.

Help those around you. When you have your house in order, gently offer help outwards to the people nearest. We all end up as prepared as we are, and you’re not helping anyone by giving them shit. If we all give kindness to those in the seats beside us, maybe we can all survive this episode without anyone ending up handcuffed in the toilet.

Be kind to other scholars, and start reforming the system. It might not be you now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be.

  1. Lest this piece be taken as a lionisation of powerful others (i.e., funders, editors, and publishers), let me remind you that it is literally the job of engineers, mechanics, pilots and air traffic controllers to ensure planes land safely. If planes were dropping out of the sky, the public would be well within it’s rights to ask why these people were keeping their jobs, and why the processes aren’t being improved. They would not be within their rights to blame the passenger in 55B for not saving everyone, and really if 55B needed some help, they ought to cut them some slack. ^
  2. Stuck as they are next to some know-it-all academic and a person with painful halitosis ^
Mathew Ling
Lecturer in Psychology

My research interests include Misinformation, Psychometrics, and Open Research practices.