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A ladder of responses to criticism, from the most responsible to the most destructive

In a recent discussion thread, I mentioned how I’m feeling charitable toward David Brooks, Michael Barone, and various others whose work I’ve criticized over the years, because their responses have been so civilized and moderate.

Consider the following range of responses to an outsider pointing out an error in your published work:

1. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, fix it publicly and thank the person who told you about it.

2. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, quietly fix it without acknowledging you’ve ever made a mistake.

3. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, don’t ever acknowledge or fix it, but be careful to avoid this error in your future work.

4. Avoid looking into the question, ignore the possible error, act as if it had never happened, and keep making the same mistake over and over.

5. If forced to acknowledge the potential error, actively minimize its importance, perhaps throwing in an “everybody does it” defense.

6. Attempt to patch the error by misrepresenting what you’ve written, introducing additional errors in an attempt to protect your original claim.

7. Attack the messenger: attempt to smear the people who pointed out the error in your work, lie about them, and enlist your friends in the attack.

We could probably add a few more rungs to the latter, but the basic idea is that response 1 is optimal, responses 2 and 3 are unfortunate but understandable, response 4 represents at the very least a lost opportunity for improvement, and responses 5, 6, and 7 increasingly pollute the public discourse.

David Brooks is a pretty solid 4 on that scale, which isn’t great but in retrospect is like a breath of fresh air, given the 6’s and 7’s we’ve been encountering lately.

Most of the responses I’ve seen, in academic research and also the news media, have been 1’s. Or, at worst, 2’s and 3’s. From that perspective, Brooks’s stubbornness (his 4 on the above scale) has been frustrating. But it can, and has, been much worse. So I appreciate that, however Brooks handles criticism of his own writing, he does not go on the attack. Similarly, I was annoyed when Gregg Easterbrook did response 2, but, in retrospect, that 2 doesn’t seem so bad at all.

As I said, I put the above into a comment thread, but I thought it’s something we might want to refer to more generally, so it’s convenient to give it its own post.

6 Comments

  1. This might be a nice place to park some thoughts from Peirce on this topic.

    “The interaction [criticism and response] with fellow inquirers is crucial for filtering out the various idiosyncrasies that individual inquirers bring to the table—it allows us, as he [Peirce] puts it, “to grind off the arbitrary and the individualistic character of thought”… Peirce defines the private self not in terms of anything exquisite or divine, but in terms of error and ignorance. What makes our private selves unique is that we differ from others in that we are wrong about different things and that we are ignorant about different things. Hence, for Peirce, scientific inquiry—which seeks to alleviate error and ignorance—is in essence a process of self-effacement.”

    Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed. Cornelis de Waal

    h are decidedly anti-Cartesian. Peirce defines
    the private self not in terms of anything exquisite or divine, but in terms of error and ignorance. What makes our private selves unique is that
    we differ from others in that we are wrong about different things and that we are ignorant about different things. Hence, for Peirce, scientific
    inquiry—which seeks to alleviate error and ignorance—is in essence a process of self-effacement. I Hence, for Peirce, scientific
    inquiry—which seeks to alleviate error and ignorance—is in essence a process of self-effacement. I

  2. Martha (Smith) says:

    I once found an error in a book by mathematician Irving Kaplansky (the guy who wrote the pi song). I wrote him a note pointing it out, and got back what must have been by return mail (this was before email) a note that started, “Oh, is my face red!”

    I would guess that this was his accustomed reply when someone pointed out a blooper he’d made. So maybe it’s a good idea for people to think in advance about what to say when someone points out an error in their work.

  3. What a great list. I plan to reflect on them. IF ANY of YOU see me committing any of them PLEASSSE tell me so I can rationalize it. LOL. Just kidding. Seriously I’m not an academic celebrity. So I’ll stick with effacement.

    Regards

  4. Good examples of response #1 by Zeke Hausfather here: https://twitter.com/hausfath/status/1087390124025905156 and by Ralph Keeling here: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2018/11/resplandy-et-al-correction-and-response/

    I hope that the more people see scientists like Keeling and Hausfather modeling this kind of response, the more the rest of us will feel inclined to respond similarly if someone points out errors in our own work.

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