Science and criticism, good and bad

It was always going to be tough for whoever took over weekly science column duties in the Guardian from Ben Goldacre. His Bad Science was entertaining about very important stuff – stats, data, the importance of evidence, and so on. So it’s perfectly possible that I’m judging Philip Ball’s first effort, which appeared last Saturday, too harshly. But, it put my back up from the very first sentence. What’s especially frustrating is that I think his aim, to be “like an arts critic, but for science”, is laudable. I’ve argued before for a more prominent place for science in public intellectual debate, and this kind of informed criticism would be an essential part of that. Unfortunately, over the course of this first column Ball has shown few signs that he has any of the attributes required to be such a critic. First, he seems not to know much about how scientists work. Forgive me if I quote in full the first paragraph to illustrate this point:

Scientists don’t like being criticised. Well, who does? But I don’t mean that they don’t like it when people say they are wrong, biased, self-serving or insular. I don’t like it when people say those things either, because in my experience scientists tend to be right, fair, generous and – well, OK, they could do with getting out more. But scientists don’t like being criticised in the proper sense of the word: in the way that books and plays and music are judged, for better or worse, by critics.

OK, so what’s wrong here? Lets ignore the tired stereotype about scientists needing to ‘get out more’ (unlike, say, anyone else who has a demanding and satisfying job with no set working hours? And especially poorly judged given the continuing revelations in the Leveson Inquiry about the less than social behaviour of some in Ball’s profession). No, let’s think instead about the nature of criticism in science.

I spend a good proportion of my working life either criticising the work of others, or responding to others’ criticisms of me. And I mean criticism in the sense – more or less – that Ball favours. That is, assessing the worth of science and placing it in its proper context. It is an essential part of the process of scientific publication, and – with the exception (on paper anyway) of a few journals like PLoS ONE – is always about much more than right and wrong. Constantly, we make judgements about the novelty, significance and interpretation of a set of results. I can’t think of many scientists who would seriously argue that “science is a question of fact – either it’s right or it isn’t”, as Ball charicatures us. Put simply, methods and results sections of papers would, we hope, fall into that kind of binary category; but Introductions and Discussions are pure interpretation, frequently subjective and designed to put a particular spin on the results to convince a journal editor that they fit within the journal’s stated aims.

We all know that, don’t we? And do we (i.e., all scientists) really have, as Ball claims, “a kneejerk aversion to any claim that science is shaped by culture”? Most of the scientists I know are a bit smarter than that. One example: Greg McInerney from Microsoft Research, who last week gave a talk in the Ecology & Environment Seminar Series that I run in Sheffield, spent some time discussing the sociology of the methodological choices that people make when modelling species distributions. To my knowledge, no-one in the audience thought this to be an especially unusual or outrageous departure. More generally, the science blogosphere is full of scientists grappling with such ideas.

One can’t help but suspect that Ball is not a great participant in the thriving culture of science online, and is building his straw men from (if anything) conversations with professors emeritus rather than with those actually doing and thinking about science. This comes across too in his claim that science journalism does have a pedagogical role in expalining science to the public “in language that scientists have forsaken” – again, discounting countless scientist-run outreach projects and terrific science communication (random example of excellence from Deep Sea News) in favour of a lazy stereotype about scientists using difficult language (which we do in our technical papers, of course, because well, they’re technical).

So, I am absolutely all in favour of a broader public debate about the social context of science. I think that would be a really positive step. But Ball’s column has failed to convince me that science journalists like himself are the people to steer this debate. Rather, science online has left him and his kind somewhat out of the loop, and scientists are already having these discussions between ourselves, and communicating them directly to the public.