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.
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/