The importance of putting the best construction on another’s words

Every field has its fundamentalists and every person has their blindspots.

In the last month or so there has been a conversation on Twitter between a few chemists. I am not sure whether it has resolved, or indeed how it resolved if it did. But the spark was a paper published in a well respected journal which had a rather dodgy comment in the supplementary information. The comment seemed to suggest that the senior author was asking the first author to make up some data. What ensued began to look a little like a witch hunt – more papers with ‘dodgy’ data were revealed in other journals and the hunt was on.

I’m sure that there are real problems in the reporting of chemical data – precisely because of some of the pressures which now characterise academia. But the vitriol and assuming of the moral high ground which was so quickly adopted was a little disturbing (all this from the most objective and rational of beings – the scientists!! – as a scientist myself I feel I can make this gibe)

It has made me pause – in all areas of life we get those who will so quickly adopt an attitude of superiority totally justified – in their own minds – by the fact that they are unearthing something which is not absolutely right. But failing to consider the possibility that the person they are busy ‘exposing’ may not have had the malicious intent they presume. So quickly reputations are ruined and careers trashed. And the whistleblower is left smugly satisfied with the role they have played.

Obviously I’m painting a rather extreme picture – I certainly have been the whistleblower at times, and it is an important role, but discernment is always necessary. I always need to be sure of my own motivations and the motivations of the other before publicly damning them.

At the start of The Spiritual Exercises Ignatius offers simple advice – every good Christian should be more willing to presume the best in a statement made by another rather than the worst. If you cannot see the good in it, then question the person directly in order to ascertain whether you have understood correctly or not. Only once you are absolutely sure that the other intended something which is erroneous or wrong, should you attempt to correct the other in love.

Our public debate would be quite different if we could all start from this presupposition.

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