Saturday, December 03, 2011

Science criticism

My first of an undisclosed number of columns in the Saturday Guardian has appeared today. And got a shedload of online feedback.

I’m grateful for all these comments, good and bad (and indifferent), for giving me some sense of how the aims of this column are being perceived. It would be as premature for me to tell you what it is going to do at this point, as it is for anyone else to judge it. This is an experiment. We don’t know yet quite where it will go (that’s how it is with experiments, right?). No doubt feedback will have an influence on that. But I think I’d better make a few things more clear than I could in the piece itself:

1. This isn’t going to be a science-knocking column. Wouldn’t that be bizarre? Like appointing a theatre critic who hates theatre. (Someone, I am sure, will now come up with a few candidates for that description.) Theatre, art and literary critics almost inevitably think that theatre, art and literature are the most wonderful things: essential, inspiring, and deeply life-affirming. It is precisely caring strongly about it their subject that constitutes a necessary (if not sufficient) qualification for the job. Well, ditto here.

2. I’m not going to be peer-reviewing anyone’s work. It’s interesting that some of the comments still seem to evince a notion that this is the full extent of the meaningful evaluation of a piece of scientific work. Look at what Dorothy Nelkin brought to the discussion about DNA and genetics – in my view, important questions that were pretty much off the radar screen of most scientists working on those things. Sadly, the Guardian hasn’t got Dorothy Nelkin, though – it’s got me. She would never have done it for this kind of money.

3. But it’s not necessarily about bringing scientists to task for what they do or don’t do or say – at least, not uniquely. I like the three definitions of “critic” in the Free Dictionary:
i. One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits, faults, value, or truth of a matter. [Mostly what peer reviewers are supposed to do, yes?]
ii. One who specializes especially professionally in the evaluation and appreciation of literary or artistic works: a film critic; a dance critic.
iii. One who tends to make harsh or carping judgments; a faultfinder. [Mostly bores and climate sceptics, yes?]

So (ii) then: I don’t see why it’s just ‘literary or artistic works’ that deserve ‘evaluation and appreciation’. Remember that critics praise as well as pillory (and in my view, the best ones always make an effort to find what is valuable in a work). The critic is also there to offer context, draw analogies and comparisons, point to predecessors. (The sceptic might here scoff “Oh yeah, very valuable in science – the predecessors of E=mc2?” To which my answer is here). I also feel that the best critics don’t try to tell you what to think, but just suggest things it might be worth thinking about.

4. Some of these folks will be disappointed – in particular, those who seem to think that the column is going to be concerned mainly with highlighting why science has lost its way, or ignores deep philosophical conundrums, or fails in its social duty. I really hope to be able to touch on some of those issues (that is, to consider whether they’re really true), and I have much sympathy with some of what Nicholas Maxwell has written. But my themes will generally be considerably less grand and more specific, perhaps even parochial. Weekly critics tend to review what’s just opened at the Royal Court, not the state of British theatre, right? Besides, it’s important that I’m realistic about what can be attempted (let alone achieved) in this format. Remember that this is a weekly column in a newspaper, not an academic thesis. I have 600 words, and then you get Lucy Mangan.

All we want to try for, really, is a somewhat different way of writing about science: not merely explaining who did what and why it will transform our lives (which of course it mostly doesn’t), but writing about science as something with its own internal social dynamics, methodological dilemmas, cultural pressures and drivers, and as something that reflects and is reflected by the broader culture. That’s what I have generally attempted to do in my books already. And I want to make it very clear that I don’t claim any great originality in taking this perspective. Many writers have done it before, and doubtless better. It’s just that there is rarely a chance to discuss science in this way in newspapers, where it is all too often given its own little geeks’ ghetto. Indeed, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science was one of the first efforts that successfully broke that mould. What’s new(ish) is not the idea but the opportunity.


JimmyGiro said...

"So there are all sorts of questions to ask about science, beyond whether it's correct or not... Nasa's Mars Science Laboratory, now on its way to the red planet, carries with it a payload of preconceptions, social and scientific; so do human genomics projects."

And you're launching this 'experiment' on the good ship Guardian!?

From preconception to gleichschaltung. Seems like an exercise in goading lefties to think in sync with their own pet scientists; to present the unified front of self-righteous, politically corrected bigots:

..."One who tends to make harsh or carping judgments; a faultfinder. [Mostly bores and climate sceptics, yes?]"

No doubt you will have your agendas and subject matters in readiness; but if not, would you consider a challenge?

Would you and your Guardian chums, like to wade into the subject matter of Ritalin use in British state schools? Being that most teaching professionals read the Guardian, and are responsible for the 'scientific' justifications of Ritalin [ab]use.

And if you've the balls to broach that subject, could you 'critically' expound the fact that mostly boys are the beneficiaries [targets] of this 'educational' medicine, by about a million, whilst maintaining the credentials of those responsible for gender equality, and educational standards, in our schools?

Philip Ball said...

Well, I figure that if on the one hand the comments on the Guardian site seem convinced that this will be an exercise in science-bashing, and on the other you fear this will be toeing the party line, hopefully the reality might confound both expectations (or alternatively, of course, fall blandly in between). We'll see.
Ritalin: I know next to nothing about it (I know, since when did that stop me?). More to the point, it's the kind of issue about medical practice in which the science tends to be remote, tenuous and hard to excavate. Ben Goldacre would do that sort of thing much better than I could. But I'll take a look.

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