Detaching my worth from my work: should criticism be taken personally?

Honest criticism of scientific work is obviously essential. It’s generally agreed criticism should focus on the work in question, not on the skill or motives of the researcher[note]For a good set of guidelines on how to give constructive criticism, I recommend reading Rapoport’s rules[/note]. Some times criticism can go too far and there is a serious discussion to be had as to where that line is. This isn’t about those kinds of criticisms. I’m focusing on the ideal criticisms. Criticisms that focus on the work at hand, that are polite, that are backed up with evidence, that are the epitome of constructive criticism. Some of my work has received such criticism. And I know the person isn’t calling into question my capabilities as a scientist, or casting aspersions on my character. They are sincerely criticising my work so it can be improved, so I and others can learn from this, and perform better in the future. It’s all very civil and positive.

Yet I often can’t help feeling a rush of emotion when people criticise my work, a sudden urge to defend what I’ve done. A desire to fire back a quick response arguing against their points[note]This doesn’t always happen e.g. when Sanjay Srivastava pointed out I had got my understanding of statistical power completely wrong and had to rewrite the second half of my blog post on it.[/note]. I know it’s not rational, but that doesn’t stop a visceral response in me. My response[note]hope?[/note] is that as I become more experienced, as I receive more criticism, I will become inured to it, and it won’t bother me. I will be able to see the criticisms for what they (mostly) will be: criticisms of something I have created which can almost certainly be improved on, and something that doesn’t reflect on me as a person[note]Assuming I’m not committing fraud or making such a basic error the reader questions whether I’ve opened a book before, which I don’t intend to do.[/note].

But is that true?

Will I be better able to demarcate criticisms of my work from criticisms of myself? Will I want to? Will I lose something, perhaps an enthusiasm for my work, if I make that divide? If I see it as “just work” will I have less pride in it when I viewed it as my brainchild? Are there only positives to detaching my self worth from the work I produce? Is it even possible? I believe I can have both pride in my work and still take constructive criticism for what it is. But is this defensive response just my pride feeling threatened, or is there more to it?

And how does this apply to the wider context? Would science as a whole improve if authors separated their ideas from themselves? Would this help reduce some of the tension around criticising studies and results? Or is this desire for impartiality just another attempt to lionise an unrealistic idea of “objectivity”? My initial response is that it would be a positive, but how can it be achieved? Beyond checking yourself before replying quickly to criticism, are there preventative measures you can take?

I guess I’ll find out.

References

Popova, M. (2014). How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/28/daniel-dennett-rapoport-rules-criticism/

2 responses to “Detaching my worth from my work: should criticism be taken personally?”

  1. My suggestion on how to deal with this issue is to more clearly separate people from theories.

    Theories in social sciences are usually not formalized. This means that if I want to truly understand an idea, I usually have to ask the author because many of the second-order implications are unclear: the theory of person X is confounded with the theory about topic Y (think Drs Cuddy or Baumeister). The first time I noticed this was for my master thesis, in which I tried to write an agent-based model of humans interacting in an evolutionary environment to see whether depression as described in the evolutionary psychology literature could potentially have beneficial outcomes. It was impossible, because literally 0 of the 20 parameters I wanted to define to run the model where described anywhere in the literature. In my experience, this is much less the case in fields with formalized theories, and is one of the main reasons that people tend to get so defensive because it is their theory.

    What to do about it? Others have argued convincingly that we need a discipline entitled theoretical psychology tasked with the formalization of hypotheses, that we need more mathematics and equations, that we ought to move closer to natural sciences. I’m lucky enough to have worked in a lab for 2 years where such formalization of theory has become commonplace, and a number of papers are going out in the next 6 months that try to propose new theories to explain e.g. specific mental disorders using a formalized framework. Curious to see how that’ll go.

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    1. I think that’s a really good point. I certainly think psychology would benefit from more formalised theories in and of itself, the benefit of drawing a line between a person and their pet (and poorly defined theory) would be a bonus.

      Like

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