why criticism is more important than ever

July 3, 2010

Criticism is an essential part of work and study. Without being corrected, without being evaluated, and without some sort of debate or discussion that helps better establish the facts at hand, what would be the point of an education in the first place? After all, some of the most notorious cranks and pseudoscientists probably were interested in learning about the real world at first, but rather than be able to admit they might have been wrong about something and figure out what it was, decided to escape criticism in cozy echo chambers, living in their own, blissful fantasies. So you might say that criticism is one of the most important mechanisms we have for preventing the rise of new pseudosciences. Unfortunately, it’s not very effective as we can see by the high rate of scientific illiteracy and anti-expertise today, and it’s actually becoming less and less practiced out of the need to be diplomatic in public, even in academia, as an article The Chronicle of Higher Education laments.

While we do need more critics willing to ruffle a few feathers to ensure factual accuracy, an idea defended by the cited article in The Chronicle, we also need to ask ourselves an important question. Can people even take criticism today, or are we too busy smiling and being polite to endure a negative comment? As I’ve pointed out before, the web has given cranks courage and loyal audiences, and fawning media coverage focused on an unstoppable search for controversy and ratings has pampered and enriched them. Even more disturbingly, a flood of overly positive self-help movements which see sadness or disappointment as a pathology, and will even demand that you treat potentially terminal conditions as just another “growth opportunity” (try saying that contempt-worthy expression in quotes without a grimace), have indoctrinated our culture with the idea that a narrow idea of civility is more important than facts, that tone is more important than correctness, that being a walking smiley face is much better than being a little wonky and analytical. The side effects of all this? We’re crawling with more cranks and pseudoscientists than we know what to do with, the media happily marches to their tune, hoping for a controversy, and we’re not allowed to say anything mean about them because if we do, then we’re just meanies. Never mind what the facts and figures say. If we can’t be supportive, we’re to silence ourselves and sit out on the sidelines like kids in time-out.

Being nice is slowly tying a noose around our necks as we shy away from important discussions and from all the things we need to do to ensure a better tomorrow, starting with promoting science and technology to train new generations of thinkers and innovators. They don’t have to become scientists, though if we were to make some changes to most scientists’ highly limited job prospects, more of them may be willing to be scholars and researchers, but a scientific education in general would better prepare them for a world in which we need experts who constantly question and invent. And any good scientific education requires a thick skin, a curious mind, and the ability to take and dish out detailed, point by point criticism. That’s what kids should be learning today instead of how to answer Section 5 of Standardized Test Z, and that’s what we’re killing by insisting that the world around us should have no conflicts, only good vibes, much like the ones extolled by Deepak Chopra and his fellow anti-scientific, intellectually void woo-meisters. It’s completely unhealthy that when skeptics point out a few flaws in an argument, the cranks are expected to clutch their chests in panic and cry about their hurt feelings rather than answer the critiques and it’s the skeptic asking question who’s considered to be in the wrong. I accept that counter-arguments may be incorrect, but dammit, get off the fainting couch, quit playing Ms. Manners, and prove your thesis! Because that’s all we really want from you in the first place…

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  • Jon

    I think you’re creating a false dichotomy between ‘civility’ and ‘correctness’, or ‘civility’ and ‘conflict’.

    If something is factually or logically wrong, it’s wrong – and that can be pointed out very effectively without incivility. Indeed, it’s most effectively pointed out without incivility, because incivility just gives people an excuse to complain about that and thereby to distract attention from the substantive issues.

    Sure, creative incivility, sarcasm and ‘mean-ness’ can make for amusing reading – but it never strengthens a counter-argument, and all-too-often detracts from one.

  • Greg Fish

    I think you’re creating a false dichotomy between ‘civility’ and ‘correctness’, or ‘civility’ and ‘conflict’.

    I really don’t think I am. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a crank’s thesis, any and all disagreement from your side tends to be classified as either “ignorant of the gaps in modern science” if it’s polite, or “rude and elitist” if you put a little bite into it by the hypothetical and crank and her supporters. So if anything, I’m actually trying to point out this false dichotomy and say that it’s ridiculous.

    And while being polite and scholarly should be the de facto approach in dealing with any claim we find to be highly questionable, it’s the unfortunate reality that most polite replies are often brushed off or ignored, while it’s the creative incivility that will finally start a debate and expose the cranks for what they really are. And when it’s done with a library worth of counter-arguments and facts, being snarky can and does work.

    But of course, when you have little supporting evidence to present, it really does just detract from the topic at hand, so it’s a tactic only for those who really understand the subject matter in question.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    A friend of mine showed me part of her dissertation-in-progress on the introduction of western science to China as exemplified by records from the 1930s in a Rockefeller-funded hospital in Beijing (Peking at the time).

    There was tremendous resistance among the local doctors for a wide variety of reasons, but she found that the foremost problem was that the older – and hence most respected – of them could not accept the cultural implications of repeated and direct criticism of their colleagues. To them, such raw fault-finding was barbarically crude.

    Between the shocks of World War II and the natural replacement of the senior cohort, eventually more blunt western modes came to prevail in medical circles, and eventually the Cultural Revolution made harsh mutual criticism mandatory (for a while) across China (a shredding of the social fabric still quite evident on the mainland but unnoticed in the much less competitive “free market” culture of Taiwan). Though this goes well beyond my friend’s focus of study, I’d be most curious to find out whether a bastardization of scientific debate played any role in Mao’s selective emphasis on probing criticism.

  • Jon said:

    If something is factually or logically wrong, it’s wrong – and that can be pointed out very effectively without incivility. Indeed, it’s most effectively pointed out without incivility, because incivility just gives people an excuse to complain about that and thereby to distract attention from the substantive issues.

    I think you’re missing the point. In far too many places, doing exactly what you espouse above is considered an attack. It’s not the matter of tone at all, but simply that someone dared to even raise questions, much less point out factual or logical flaws.

    Try hanging out on any forum dealing with religion, paranormal activity, alt med, UFOs, homeopathy, et cetera. Even just look at the comments following this comic. It should become abundantly clear that approaching things from a non-confrontational standpoint is not the solution – you’re dealing with people who treat any criticism at all as confrontation.

    Their idea is, if you embarrass or intimidate someone, they’ll back away on their standpoint, and unfortunately, this is the way the game is played in enough areas of our culture anymore. And all too often, these same people count on their critics using exactly the method you describe, because they know they can create enough noise to drown it out. I’ve watched this take place in board meetings, of all places. And you know something? The biting, incisive comment in reply, showing utter contempt for such tactics, works amazingly well. Playing the game by their rules and having the facts on your side is something they can’t deal with.

  • And for that matter whats wrong with throwing a rotten egg at a con artist pretending to be a scientist!

    Excellent article and well put – im not going to shut up in the future I am gonna say why its wrong.

  • Bruce Coulson

    You can’t get into a gutter to fight with someone without getting filthy. By the same token, resorting to the same techniques of emotional shock and crudity lowers you to your opponents’ level; and make no mistake, they will know more about how to fight there than you do.

    You are correct in that you can’t win an arguement with people whose minds are already made up. By simply disagreeing with them, you’re challenging their ‘authority’ and they can’t accept that. But your opponents aren’t who you’re trying to win over; it’s the audience.

    Scientists are still trying to recover from their tactics in suppressing Velikovsky. Not that they were wrong in declaring Velikovsky completely unscientific and ridiculous; but the methods used to promote that point of view simply encouraged the persecution complex of the true believers that Velikovsky was right, and ‘the Establishment’ was merely trying to conceal The Truth.

    There isn’t an easy answer to the problem. Being persistent in the face of outrageous slanders, continuing to demand answers, facts, proof, and logic in support of something, though, will eventually win out. Some actual legal work may be required; if an opponent resorts to slurs, lies, libels, and slanders, suddenly forcing them to prove their statements in court can be persuasive.

    And some people will NEVER believe something that contradicts what they WANT to believe. You may as well stop trying with these people, and work on the audience.