I do a lot of criticism. I’m sure you can think of lots of things that I like to criticize, but to keep things simple, let’s focus on graphics criticism, for example this post where I criticized a graph for false parallelism.
At this point some people would say that graphics criticism is mean, and not just mean but counterproductive, that we should be more constructive and less critical, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. Let me call this criticism criticism.
If I’m in a quippy mood, I’ll reply that maybe you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but you can capture even more flies with poop!
More seriously though, here’s an advantage of criticism that we don’t always hear about, which is the positive way in which criticism can shift the discourse.
The audience for criticism is not just the direct objects of the criticism, it’s also the community more generally.
Take the above-linked example. It may be that Dan Kahan, the person who pointed made this graph, will be motivated to think harder about his goals when plotting data. Or maybe my negativity will just send Dan into a defensive crouch. Or, perhaps most likely, he’ll find my criticism to be pretty much irrelevant to his larger goals. That’s fine. But I hope that other readers of this post will be made aware of the Gricean messages being sent implicitly by various choices in a graphical display.
In political science, I proceed on two tracks: I criticize graphs I don’t like, and I make graphs following my own principles. The criticism I do, makes me more aware of my goals, of how to do better. And, in the field of political science, sure, there are some people who think it’s funny that I’m always there to criticize a graph. But, in the past 10 years, I’ve been seeing more and more intense, informative graphs coming from researchers in that field. It’s taken awhile, but I’m seeing forward movement. I think criticism is part of this. Criticism makes us aware of our goals and what we need to do to get there.
So I’m a critic of criticism of criticism. And this post is an exercise in criticism criticism criticism.
P.S. In graphics, as in all fields, our criticism should come with an effort to understand the context of the behavior we’re criticizing. For example, when Antony Unwin and I wrote about infovis and statistical graphics. Typically the behavior we don’t like is done in service of some goals, and it’s a good idea to try to understand these goals. Criticism is a valuable part of this process.