Wednesday, November 21, 2007

People Listen to Me. . .

Last Thursday (November 15th, 2007) I responded to a post by ScienceBlogger Jonah Lehrer about "science criticism":
*Why don't we have science critics? We have music critics and literary critics and dance critics and architecture critics...Wouldn't it be great to also have knowledgeable people point out the flaws and achievements of the latest scientific papers? And yes, I did write an article on this idea a few years ago in Seed, although it seems to have been lost by Google.
To which I responded rather hastily:
We do. It's called peer review.
Imagine my horror when, the next day, I find that Mr. Lehrer has devoted a whole bloody post to my comment:
In response to my call for science critics, a position analogous to a music critic or art critic except that they review the latest science papers, a commenter wrote the following:
"Why don't we have science critics?"
We do. It's called peer review.
My response is that peer review is necessary but not sufficient. (I've discussed the limitations of the peer review process before.) As every scientist knows, lots of crap gets published in journals. (In fact, it's possible that most published research findings are false. ) The job of a science critic, like all critics, would consist of two separate parts: 1) criticize what deserves criticism and 2) praise what deserves praise. Here's what I wrote about science critics way back in the spring of 2004 in Seed:
I believe we need to treat science like culture. We should interrogate and question our science no less than we judge our art. What we need are figures outside of the scientific process to remind us that science is a process, that the data might mean this, or that. What we need are critics of science.
Why does the phrase "critics of science" sound so strange? Why can't our newspapers have, right next to the review of the philharmonic, a thousand opinionated words about molecular biology? Just as there are souls who know Bach better than Bach himself and yet choose to sit in the audience, to listen to the orchestra from the plush velvet chair, so we need figures who know science inside and out and yet choose to site on the sidelines. Modern science is a specialized body of knowledge; an archipelago of disciplines, with each island dominated by its own codes and coasts. Our critics would have to master that island biogeography. In other words, our science critics would have to really know what they were talking about.

Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, argued for just such a figure: "It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism."
I know, kids. . . I'm scared too.

No comments:

Locations of visitors to this page