Thursday, November 10, 2011

Understanding Criticism

Critique (also known as peer-review) is an integral part of science. You can handle it in two ways. Either you do it the Nazi-way, or in a more civilised way. Alain Briot is a renown landscape photographer who has written several (that's 1, 2, several) books about working as a photographer. In addition he quite regularly writes for Luminous Landscape, one of the premier photography sites in the world. Recently they published his essay "Understanding Criticism", which is what inspired me to write this little blog-post. It is actually a trilogy: Understanding Criticism, Responding to Criticism and the up-coming just published: Staying Motivated, which changed title to "A few words on perseverance."

I think you should read them. Below is just the alternative introduction, so that it is more about science than art. Where criticism in the arts is often a matter of taste and happens after the art as such is finished, criticism is an integral part of the scientific method. Without critique there would be no science.

Alain writes that: "It is the nature of art that we do not all agree on what is art." This is not true about science. There are some easy criteria by which any work or statement can be judged as scientific or not. I think the easiest test is whether it opens up for more research or not. If it purports to be a final answer, then it is probably hyperbole. However, there are still differences of opinion regarding the quality and importance of different areas of science from different perspectives. The to big divides are the natural sciences versus the humanities, and basic versus applied science. These can give rise to unwarranted criticism, although they can also give rise to very interesting questions. Scientific criticism basically involves four valid targets.
  • The rationale.
  • The methods.
  • The conclusions.
  • The presentation.
Note that I do not include criticism of the data as such, because data is inviolable as long as the methods are sound. When receiving criticism it is very important to decide which of the targets are actually under fire. For example: When they attack your rationale, it is often because the presentation of said rationale is weak and difficult to understand.

Finally, there is the unscientific criticism, which I will leave for now. I have to prepare to go to Glasgow to write a new and exciting paper so that I can send it in for organised criticism by highly trained terriers esteemed colleagues. But, seriously read the series.

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