Facts are facts.

Another of my “Something someone said on the Internet pissed me off” rants.

First, the thing that got said (paraphrased for simplicity.) “Historically speaking, facts accepted in the scientific community get proved dead wrong all the time.”

No. Nope. Wrong. The above statement is bullshit of the stinkiest kind, and I am sick to death of shoveling it out of conversations on science.

No scientific fact has ever been proven dead wrong, nor will one ever be. None. Zero. Zilch. Not even a one.  A conclusion being disproven and replaced is a whole different matter.  A disproved conclusion is not the same as a fact being proved dead wrong.  (Memorize that statement if necessary.) Not equivalent. Not even close.

I can see why people who aren’t paying attention get confused by those two points. It’s those pesky words “facts” and “proof” and the human brain’s difficulty processing complex concepts. Disproving an accepted conclusion is the evolution of understanding. Replacing facts with their opposites is merely an exchange of position.

Let’s pause and turn a hairy eyeball on the phrase scientific fact itself. It is a misnomer. It’s shorthand in public discourse for “Generally recognized consensus about a singular conclusion.” It’s also a useless, lazy misuse of vocabulary. Unanimous acceptance (that’s what consensus means)  is a rare creature in the scientific community.

Here’s a suggestion: the next time you see the phrase “scientific fact” used in a news report, go ahead and substitute “unicorn.” This might serve as a reminder you are being told a fairy tale rather than being told the full, complicated, amazing truth.

See, in scientific fields nothing is permanently accepted as correct, period.

This is How Science Works in a nutshell. Today’s accepted conclusions are tomorrow’s hypotheses to be tested and challenged.

For something to be accepted as “scientific fact,” by the scientific community as a whole,  it has to be a point so big, so obvious, and so well-documented that almost everyone in the field of study agrees on it. And even when a cherished unicorn is birthed–meaning something that mostly everyone accepts– it is wrapped in multiple cushiony layers of contingency before being let loose in journals or symposiums, poked, prodded and disputed.

But dealing with ugly layers of complexity and ambiguity  isn’t half as fun as stripping away everything but one shiny click-baitable tidbit.

That’s how the reasonable scientific conclusion of “we did a study of a bunch of people on a certain diet expecting one result but getting another, so we plan to study more people with more variables to pinpoint whether the result comes from the cause we think or something else” turned into “OMG STOP EATING WHEAT IT’S POISON” with one news article.

The fact is, complexity doesn’t sell, sensationalism does. Conclusions get promoted by various media, by medical professionals and through other organizations tangential to science for many reasons. They are hardly ever presented with complexity attached because it dilutes the message du jour.  Thus what gets declared as “scientific facts” in popular media are rarely either.

Another fact: complexity can be used to obfuscate a conclusion no one wants to believe.  Even when it’s so widely accepted that scientists call it a fact.

Take climate change, for example.  By climate change I mean the way science has tied objective measurements to a perfect correlation with historical production of carbon dioxide. The conclusion human actions are affecting climate has attained fact status atop a mountain of data from hundreds of years’ worth of global, independent multi-disciplinary studies. That consensus is neither monolithic nor free from contradictions, but calling the general conclusion anything but fact is as ridiculous as questioning the existence of hats. (the jury is still out on owls. And the cake is a definitely a lie.)

But when you take complexity, add a hefty misdirection courtesy of “Oh, well, science is always changing its mind and contradicting itself,” and it’s been nigh impossible to get public support for critical conservation efforts. Which is why I hate that particular little piece of bullshit so much.

But I digress. I grant that the ever-popular conflation of confidence  with fact has led to major crimes against humanity — but this usually happens when badly tested ideas (or outright frauds) are bent to the service of social or personal agendas. The fault lies in the human frailties of arrogance, laziness, desire for attention, and greed, not in the “scientific facts” themselves.

OK. That’s it for a while.

Criticizing Critiques (Again)

This post addresses my reaction to an otherwise fabulous analysis of the differences between critique and criticism. You should read that post first.

http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/03/06/a-critic-critiques-criticism-critically/

One element jumped out and grabbed me by the grumblies: the proposition that only kind, positively-voiced critiques are objective and honest ones.

I disagree. My own thoughtful, evaluation of the words critique & criticism leads me to assign a slightly different division of labor. In my world, a good critique can list lacks and areas that could be changed or improved. In fact, I think it should. Sharing dislikes as well as likes does not a criticism make, in my ever so humble opinion.

Now, here’s a complication. Disagreement is the act of voicing a negative opinion. Does that automatically make this whole post a criticism and not a critique? Or is there more to the picture than a binary split? Is disagreement necessarily negative, with all the pejorative, harmful baggage that adjective carries? The brightsiders say so. (spoiler alert: I disagree) Or is the current trend of conflating all conflict with harmful hostility at work here? (hint: I think so, yes)

Let’s take a closer look at my statement: I make an honest, detailed evaluation based on definitions and common usage, focusing on the work, not the author…those sure look like critique elements as described in the article. But, wait. My tone could be considered sarcastic. Sarcasm = criticism. But wait, sarcasm is a form of humor, and critiques use humor to soften presentation…

Yeah. Complicated. Which is my point. Here are three more:

First, no objective, analytical, detailed evaluation of a structure will always result in a list composed solely of positives. Ask any building inspector.

Second, an analysis of structure that only focuses on what’s working will never lead to improvement in what isn’t working. I could say ask any building inspector again, but I like a pithier analogy: focusing only on the parts of a creative work already worthy of praise is like looking for a lost wallet under a streetlight because the light is better there. It helps no one find the reward still hidden somewhere in the darkness.

Third, no critique can ever be fully objective. To critique is to offer an opinion, and that will never be anything more than a single impression, based on personal experience and a more-or-less shared set of beliefs about what kind of techniques and topics have value and so on.  More or less leaves a lot of wiggle room for disagreement on premise. Expectations and experience are a huge tripping zones too. In analyzing matters of art, as opposed to matters of data, there is no One Right Idea, only popular and unpopular ones.

I can present an educated, thoughtful, analysis-based evaluation of something and still be offering a radical minority report. (like or dislike)  A corollary to that: disliking something is not inherently disrespecting it, and it certainly has no bearing on my respect for the person who made it. And therein lies the crux of good critique.

One can be honest about what one dislikes without being cruel.  One can respect a person but not like their art. And if it’s a critique, which is offering opinions of art-in-progress, then honesty will remain my policy. To offer anything less than the whole picture as I see it would be disrespectful to the artist.

I emphasize the “as I see it” because as I stated earlier, valid viewpoints can differ. A last important point: in the end, those who offer up critiques or criticisms are like the Goblin King in Labyrinth; we have no power over creators. My opinion is not a threat even if it comes to the party naked and ugly.  As long as I dress it up in decent clothes, it should be allowed to attend and sip its drink in peace. Asking it to stay home or wear a mask if it isn’t pretty…I won’t do that.

Here’s another analogy, because I love me some metaphor goodness: kindness and honesty aren’t oil and water, but they are like oil and egg. In the right proportions, with good seasonings, delicious dressings result. In the wrong mix, everyone ends up wishing they’d skipped the salad altogether.

Now. Was this post a critique or a criticism of the “only kind critiques are good critiques” argument? In the final analysis, I don’t really care. If it provides anyone with any insight on how to present artistic analysis to others, that’s reward enough.

You can disagree. It’s all good.