Tuesday, July 26, 2011

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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