A well-known journalist (“Press Gazette Transport Journalist of the Year 2018”) Carlton Reid has recently interviewed a well-known researcher John Pucher (“Professor Emeritus in the Urban Planning and Policy Development”).
Of all things Pucher said in that interview, Reid has picked the following when tweeting about the interview: “’I have been a hater of cars for my entire life,’ John Pucher says in the podcast. ’That was what motivated my entire academic career.’”
I was shocked. And still am. There is no doubt we live in a car-centric world. The cars’ negative impact on the environment and health are also well researched and documented. Compared to other modes of transportation (e.g., cycling, public transportation), private car driving almost always comes the last in any cost-benefit analysis. However, there are some problematic issues in how these cost-benefit analyses are performed.
For example, in the well-publicized (e.g., press release by Pyöräliitto) study “The Social Cost of Automobility, Cycling and Walking in the European Union,” only costs were considered, except health benefits, which were zero for car driving and large for cycling. “Quality of life, branding and tourism” were mentioned, but no values were included in the analysis because of the lack of studies on the topic. This means the benefits (e.g., quality of life) of car driving are not very well understood. Further research is needed in order to understand all costs and benefits of different modes of transportation. This requires a balanced approach.
Nevertheless, let’s say that the invention of a motor vehicle has been indeed detrimental for human kind and that a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis would show that the costs for a society have been higher than benefits. Is that good enough reason for a researcher to say ’I have been a hater of cars for my entire life and that motivated my entire academic career’?
There are a few research topics one can say they hate. For example, everyone hates cancer. I do. A researcher can say “I hate cancer and that motivated my entire academic career.” All will understand that. A researcher could say also “I hate racism and that motivated my entire academic career.” We will understand that. However, such researchers should be conscious about their strong motivation and the negative effects it can have on their work. I will mention here only an observer bias.
On the other hand, how would we react if a researcher would say “I have been a hater of neuroticism/vaccines/Roman law/planes/bicycle helmets for my entire life and that motivated my entire academic career.’ Would we expect a balanced and unbiased approach from that researcher? Probably not. Or perhaps we would agree with them based on our own views about a particular topic?
Hating an object of your research is a sign of serious bias. The hate towards cars was present throughout the entire interview.
“Okay. Um, I have been a hater of cars from my entire life. And that was what I was actually motivated my entire academic career.”
“There’s some people who like cars and I hate them.”
“I hate Trump even more than cars. And that’s a lot.”
We all have values. We all have our hypotheses and expectations. We might struggle with own biases in our research. However, hate is dangerous. It is very difficult to be unbiased if you hate. Hate also leads to discrimination. If you hate cars, do you also hate those who drive them? A few billion people? I wonder how these researchers who hate cars behave behind the scenes, for example, as peer-reviewers. Hate should not motivate your academic career. Please leave academia if you hate the topic of your research.
Update on 15.5.2021
As I wrote on Twitter, I think this is a disgrace to science. My friend was equally critical: “A thief thinks everyone else are thieves also. Otherwise the moral dilemma would be too big to handle.” Justifying own hate and consequent bias by saying that other scientists are not even aware of their own biases is not only unethical according to scientific standards, it is also morally wrong according to any standard. This is just like saying “I believe most people are implicitly racist, so that gives me a reason/permission/justification I can be explicitly racist. I am at least honest about my racism; others don’t even know they are racists.” This is shocking to say the least. Nevertheless, the journalist refers to this researcher as one “of the world’s leading cycling-for-all academics.” Once again, shared values and goals have priority over good research ethics and practices.
An anonymous person has commented below that I hate cycling. That can’t be further from the truth; however, I am not going to defend myself. I will just remind a reader about what I write here and on twitter. I write about:
- a journalist who interviewed only one party (guess which) in a long-term scientific debate and let him ‘rubbish’ the other party
- academics and journalists who created own media awards and give them to journalists who write about their own work
- academics and journalists who change the rules for their media awards after the nomination period had ended, and delete one type of award from their webpage as if they had never existed
- researchers and cycling advocates who repeatedly and uncritically cite the alleged 20:1 benefit-to-cost ratio of cycling
- a cycling advocacy group filtering scientific evidence
- how the researcher’s car hate precedes and guides his academic career and research on the same topic (this text)
- poor studies, which nevertheless become classics on twitter
- editors who don’t follow their journal’s rules
These represent a pattern of dodgy behavior. I sincerely apologize for writing about this pattern.