Learning from Pointless Bickering

In case you missed it, there’s been a big hoo-hah about an editorial that Brian Cox and Robin Ince (two upstanding and excellent nerds) wrote for New Statesman. The gist was this;

Guys, stop trying to treat science as if it’s politics. Science is important for politics, sure, but don’t treat scientific statements as if they are a matter of opinion. Furthermore, don’t misunderstand science’s intentions; science doesn’t tell you what to do, it just tells you what’s understood. Science will never tell you what policy decisions to make, but it might equip you better to make that decision.

What was nice to see was that there’s been a lot of talk about it. What was slightly less nice was the fact that a large part of the discussion around the subject didn’t address the important points as outlined above. As in the link above, a large part of the criticism for the editorial focused around the minor points – historians and philosophers arguing about the specific uses of certain phrases when those specific things don’t hold importance to the topic itself.

Brian Cox himself came along with a comment about such things, rebutting what he called “nitpicking” while failing to address the real issue. Where they got things wrong, he gracefully admitted as such and then pointed out that the things they got wrong were stuff the article was “not about”.

I think that the lesson to be drawn from all of this is as follows;

Make sure that you keep your criticism of someone else’s work in proportion; small problems generally do not invalidate entire opinions. Make sure to recognize and openly state when a quibble is really just a correction rather than a grand denouncement of the “other side”.

Keeping your comments on such debates in proportion (openly and from the start) is of ultimate importance, and you will look all the better for doing it. Ultimately, nobody who pretended that Cox & Ince’s editorial was fatally flawed because of a minor nitpick has come out of this looking good.

In my opinion, any scientist (and perhaps any academic) should be well trained in doing this. The entire practical process of doing science (that is; drawing conclusions from evidence you have found) relies utterly upon honestly stating both the flaws in your arguments and the resulting importance of the effects. That is, in essence, what the critics of Ince & Cox have largely failed to do, and they look less credible because of it.


About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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