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Critical People in Academia – An Interview with Ineke Wessel

When looking for more ‘critical people’ to talk to for this series, I thought about the different researchers that I met during my studies. One of them was Ineke Wessel – I met her when I was looking to learn more about statistics and meta-science. She is known for her research on controversial memory topics and discussions about replicability and the incentive system. She also is co-hosting ReproducibiliTea meetings at the local faculty and is teaching research- and critical thinking skills to postdoctoral clinical psychologists during their psychotherapeutic training.

A Critical Mind Is Drawn to Controversial Topics

During our conversation, Ineke explained that skepticism is evident throughout her life. She told me that she always had a critical attitude and a tendency to question assumptions of herself and others, which she sees as a personality characteristic. In her research, Ineke has voiced strong and critical opinions of memory theories. Coincidentally, the same year that Ineke started her Ph.D., Elizabeth Loftus published a well-known article doubting repressed memories, which was followed by scientific discourse. Ineke got involved in the discussion around the ‘memory wars’, the debate between researchers about repressed and delayed memories. Starting to do research in such a heated debate socialized her into a critical atmosphere, encouraged an outspoken opinion, and strengthened her skeptical attitude.

The Vulnerability of an Outspoken Critical Opinion

In her role as a researcher, Ineke’s expertise is valued not only by colleagues but also by the public. She has sometimes been invited to talk about controversial topics like in this radio show in 2019, in which she doubted controversial memory theories such as the reptilian brain and the storage of traumatic memories in the body.

“When you’re taking a position, there is automatically one that you do not take. People are going to take that personally and you might be attacked.”

However, from what Ineke told, it became clear that voicing this critical attitude can sometimes put you in a rather uncomfortable position. In a new episode, the same radio show discussed some of Ineke’s statements in a 2017 newspaper article. According to Ineke, in that newspaper interview, she had commented on repressed and recovered memories in general, but the radio show raised the impression that Ineke expressed her disbelief in someone’s personal story. Next to being a memory researcher, Ineke is also an advisory member of the national expert group for sexual abuse cases that are reported to the police. She explained that the radio show highlighted her role as a member of this group, rather than her role as a scientist, in which she originally made these statements (for more information, here is an open letter from Ineke and a response letter from the radio hosts). The radio show presented Ineke’s thoughts in a different light and made it apparent that you are – to a certain degree – giving up control over the use of your ideas when you speak out publicly. 

Sexual abuse and the fact that some victims need to defend that they experienced sexually traumatizing incidents is triggering to many people and thus a very sensitive topic. Ineke said that many of us have had me too experiences, but that there are people who have suffered the more severe side of it. You need to be careful when expressing criticism on such a topic because it will receive much more attention and is more emotionally loaded than other discussions. Ineke argues that “when you’re taking a position, there is automatically one that you do not take. People are going to take that personally and you might be attacked”. According to her, emotionally upsetting people while expressing scientific viewpoints is an unintended side effect of having scientific discussions. For example, if you voice critical thoughts about clinical theories on traumatic memory, victims of sexual abuse may feel that you don’t believe that they were abused. With these, you’re going against what a lot of people sympathize with and that can make you feel isolated.

A Gut Feeling that Something Wasn’t Right Before the Replicability Crisis

“There is a game that we are playing that we call academia.”

Ineke told me that around 2016, she found out about a lack of evidence in the psychological literature. This made her question her own work and thoughts like ”I’ve been wrong all the time” crossed her mind. This was a horrible realization at the time. However, Ineke describes having had a bad gut feeling before that and for long she felt like “there is a game that we are playing that we call academia”. She was referring to the incentive structure surrounding academia and publishing, that encourages you to frame your results in a favorable light. Now, years after she first heard about the replicability crisis, she feels like if you do not consider alternative explanations for your results, you might be missing out on something.

Remaining Critical Takes a Proactive Approach

“It might be easier to just go with the flow of the system and not be critical.”

Sometimes Ineke feels like being critical and trying to keep up with her own standards of open and responsible research is making things more difficult for her. When good practices are not established yet, “it might be easier to just go with the flow of the system and not be critical”, she explains. However, being more critical can also be rewarding in some ways: Ineke has the feeling that she gains an understanding of the things important to her, and being critical also improves the quality of her work. Because of this, she tries to forward critical attitudes actively, for example during her teaching activities with students and the postdoctoral psychologist training. Ineke is especially content when the students get enthusiastic about acquiring an alternative viewpoint.

Conclusion and Conflict of Interests

Ineke sees being critical as embedded as a trait in her personality that shows throughout her early and recent work. She has been doubting the status quo in academia and extrapolated that into a mission to actively make things better for herself but also for the field. My main takeaway from the conversation is that voicing criticism, especially on emotional topics, puts you in a vulnerable position. Putting yourself in this position, however, might be good for a debate, moving an issue forward and giving a balance to a discussion. While being in this vulnerable position might be uncomfortable, Ineke stressed that social media are “very fleeting”, and thus, most heated debates are temporary.

Again, this post does not claim to be objective because (1) I have worked with Ineke in the past, (2) I have similar research interests and opinions, and (3) Ineke was involved in the editing process.

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