Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Corrective Criticism

The important thing is that mistakes be discovered and corrected. Andrew Gelman quotes the strong language of Tilburg University's report (PDF) on the Stapel case: "The scientific literature must be cleansed of everything that is fraudulent, especially if it involves the work of a leading academic." But fraud is merely one way of introducing error into the literature. As Ryan Shaw points out in the comments, the right approach isn't to "cleanse" the literature of the effects of fraud, but to publicize the fraud so that future readers will be as well-informed as possible.

This is why I always argue that the work of discovering mistakes in other people's work—the work of straightforward criticism—must be encouraged by publishing it on par with the more familiar "original" research. In principle, a scholar should be able to build a whole career on identifying errors in reasoning and interpretation, as well as plagiarism and fabrication, and making these public. (In practice, of course, most scholars will not feel satisfied with merely "weeding the garden".) As always in scholarship, arguments and evidence must be provided, and critiques themselves may ultimately turn out to be wrong, but there must be room in the literature for work that does not make a "contribution" in the usual "positive" way.

This isn't about "cleansing" so much as cleaning or tidying up. Throwing things out that have outlived their usefulness. Disposing of dangerous chemicals and rotten fruit (picked but not eaten). Such cleanup operations are necessary in the wake of a scandal, of course, and might intensify under such circumstances. But they should be getting done on a regular basis too. As a matter of course. Ideas should not leave the literature only by being forgotten. Sometimes they should be explicitly rejected.


Andrew Shields said...

I suspect that a career built on identifying errors would be rather thin, indeed, but a scholar focused on doing that would surely not be very good at it. Only an active scholar can really become good at spotting the problems.

Thomas said...

I agree. Also, if all you talk only about the errors in your field you would probably enjoy research more in another field. It's something I'm slowly learning. I've always found my studies going off the rails when I discover the "fundamental" shoddiness of the field or discipline that surrounds the subject. What I have to understand is that "Gerede" may be evil, but it's a necessary evil.

One very important part of my formation as a scholar that I've too often avoided is teaching the disciplines I want to criticize. I'm thinking about doing something about that now.