The Frontal Cortex

Science Critics

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.”


  1. #1 jk
    November 16, 2007

    Man, does my comment look snarky in hindsight. I’m sorry about that.

    I’m actually taking a seminar class right now focusing on communicating science to the general public via the mass media, particularly journalists. One of the things we’re learning in this class is just how hard it is to communicate scientific ideas to the public them without them being misunderstood, ovcersimplified, or distorted in the process. Maybe one branch of “science criticism” could involve critiques of how scientific ideas are presented to the public.

    Again, I’m sorry if I sounded overly rude. I didn’t mean to.

  2. #2 jonah
    November 16, 2007

    It wasn’t snarky at all! It was an excellent comment, and that’s why I wanted to respond to it. I do think that science critics could play an important role in science communication. Rght now, almost all science journalism is about translation: taking complicated science ideas and simplifying them for a general audience. That’s an essential task, but I can’t help but feel that it leaves something out. I think science is too important to only get one kind of media coverage.

    And yes, science critics should also criticize the presentation of scientific ideas to the public, both by the scientists themselves (and the PR departments of the university) and by reporters.

  3. #3 natural cynic
    November 16, 2007

    On the lightheards side there are, of course, the Ig Nobel Prizes to remind us of the vast amount of trivial and bizarre work being done.

  4. #4 The Neurocritic
    November 16, 2007

    And yes, science critics should also criticize the presentation of scientific ideas to the public, both by the scientists themselves (and the PR departments of the university) and by reporters.

    I’ve even been critical of your science writing…

  5. #5 Jonah
    November 16, 2007

    The Neurocritic performs a very important service. I only wish there was no need for anonymity…But please keep up the good work.

  6. #6 Epistaxis
    November 17, 2007

    Like this (indirectly via PZ)?

    If only the NY Times gave someone like him a column.