Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.
The title of this blog posting is from the quotation above. In many ways, it’s got a point. People are not remembered for pointing out mistakes, for showing where a theory falls apart or which other explanations are possible for the results of an experiment. People are remembered if they have build something, especially if it has stood the test of time. It’s easy to destroy, not so easy to build something in its place that does better.
A recent tweet with a quotation by Marie Curie shows this issue:
“There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth.”
Not sure whether I agree that something like “the truth” exists, but it’s got a point. Sternberg (2004) drives the issue home in his “Psychology 101 1/2 — The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia”. He once tried to disprove another scientist (Garner), but this attempt blew up in his face, because he himself made a mistake and did not disprove anything:
“… he [Garner] told me, in his avuncular style, that I had an important lesson to learn, namely, that scientists are judged primarily by the positive contributions they make, not by the negative ones. This was great advice.
There are some people who try to build a career attacking others. In essence, they try to ride on the coattails of others, hoping to attract attention to themselves by attacking people, usually ones who are considerably better known than they are. I have had the honor of being attacked by several such people over the course of my career. I say “honor” because these people do not bother to attack you unless they think you are well enough known to bring them attention. In essence their careers are parasitic in that they prey on those who are well known to become more well known themselves.
After Garner gave me his advice, my whole attitude toward the field of psychology changed. I realized that the attack dog mentality really does not bring one very far. Moreover, as Kuhn (1970) pointed out, new paradigms tend to replace old paradigms not when the old paradigms are merely criticized, but when there are better or at least more currently useful ideas to take their place.
This is not to say that you should never criticize anyone’s research. Part of almost any research career will involve disagreeing with other people. The important thing is to have a better idea yourself–something that replaces or builds on what they have done.
Sternberg (2004, p. 213)
However, while this still applies, I think there is an important distinction to be made here. Recently, at least in some disciplines, there are frauds in mainstream science who are not interested in “the truth”, but grant money, status, and fame. And they should be hunted down. They should be exposed. What these people have “build” are mere illusions — because the experiment data were manipulated or even fabricated. While knocking down someone’s life’s work without building something in its place is a waste of time, getting these frauds is not. They damage science with an illusion of knowledge.
And I think we need more people who look more closely at the work of other scientists. And perhaps a statue here or there.
Sternberg, R. J. (2004). Psychology 101 1/2. The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia. Washington, D.C.: APA.