Science and Attitudes Toward Criticism

So this morning I got a strong criticism of my post, “The Not-so-Hidden Flaw in this Climate Argument”, which itself is a criticism of someone else’s criticism of a climate model (got all that?). I only had a very brief moment to look at the comment, but it put me in a good mood…a mood that I don’t think would be held by a similar-type criticism in a non-science arena. I think there is a very big difference between the way a scientist, through training, perceives and handles criticism which was exemplified with my mood this morning. Let me try to explain.

  1. It is a very good day for a scientist to go in to work, and to demonstrate that one of his colleagues is wrong. It’s even better if the wrong idea/theory/model is one that is popular! For those scientists to adequately demonstrate that a popular idea is wrong, we have for them the Nobel Prize. Of course, it is very hard to demonstrate that a well-established idea is wrong because, by definition, a well-established idea in science is one where many many smart people have tried to show it is wrong and have failed. For those people who claim that scientists have a conspiracy to uphold popular scientific ideas (a criticism creationists level against the support of evolution), they completely miss the goals of every scientist.
  2. It is also a good day when someone criticizes your idea. In the comment on my post, the criticism took the form of “if your idea is correct, how do you explain the following observation…”. Awesome! Why? First, someone bothered to read my post, and found it important/interesting enough to comment…that always makes me happy. Secondly, I’m now in a win-win situation. There are 3 possibilities:
    • the criticism is flat out wrong, and I get a chance to both teach something, and to bolster my idea…I can be a bit more confident in my idea.
    • the criticism is partly correct, and I get a chance to add a bit of nuance, or explore a part of my idea that I hadn’t fully considered
    • the criticism is correct, and I have learned something about the world and have to modify my thinking (at the expense of scrapping my idea).

Each of these 3 possibilities is wonderful, and it put me in a good mood! In contrast, most people when criticized (think politics, sports, religion, etc…) get defensive. They don’t look forward to the possibility that they might be wrong, and may need to modify their thinking. I prefer the scientific perspective!

Now I need to go and address the criticism.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to Science and Attitudes Toward Criticism

  1. I think that the case where the criticism was correct might not put you in such a good mood if you had a lot invested in your idea. For example, say you were hoping to receive the Nobel prize for your revolutionary idea (that you believed you’d proven true), but then this criticism reveals a hole in your idea that invalidates it. In the long run it might be good for you to learn this way, but it will hurt, and you might not be in a good mood for a while. You might even put forth some effort to resurrect your idea, hoping to salvage it. This is where religious people are, with their beliefs. They have a lot invested in those ideas, so they have a hard time parting with them. For most, as long as there is a tattered shred of possibility that they might prove true (maybe Santa can slow the passage of time, and that’s how he gets all those presents delivered in one night, etc.,etc.), they will cling to them.

  2. brianblais says:

    Yes, I agree that the more you have a stake in it, the more you’ll defend it. However, even on topics that I’ve been working on for decades, when they’ve been criticized I haven’t had the kind of territorialism that you describe. Instead, I think, I constantly have an attitude that things can’t be *completely* wrong, only approximately wrong. So when I get some push back, I respond by pushing back, and the ball winds up somewhere in the middle. Hopefully closer to my side of the court. 🙂

    It does get difficult to admit to yourself that “truths” you’ve been espousing for years are wrong. There’s an interesting project, called the clergy project (http://www.clergyproject.org/) which demonstrates interesting examples of this, and of the effects when you finally do come to terms with the truth.

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