[ weird things ] | why criticism is more important than ever

why criticism is more important than ever

In sparing the feeling of religious zealots and ardent believers of junk science, we've done ourselves no favors.
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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…

# politics // criticism / culture / debate / mass media

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