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So You Want to be a Critic

By Dean E. Abrahamson

A number of my students and former students have asked me how established interests react to a scientific critic of their ideas and objectives, or what they should do if they aspire to be effective critics. A critic is defined as one who publicly expresses disagreement with established policy or dogma. The following is based on lessons learned from my 30 years of personal experience doing public education work regarding atomic energy.

First and foremost, a critic must be prepared for attempts to be discredited, intimidated, co-opted, and/or fired. Attempts to discredit are a routine part of the agenda for a critic, whether the issue relates to atomic energy, drug or tobacco testing, science policy, etc. The usual steps in this process are as follows:

1. The critic appears. The first response is to ignore the critic, hoping he or she will go away.

2. The critic persists. The second response is for representatives of the established interest to allege that the critic is not an expert. These allegations can, by themselves, compromise the critic's employment and reputation. It is much more difficult to sustain a claim of incompetence when the critic comes from within the establishment that is the subject of attention. In this case, the critic becomes a whistle blower.

3. The critic must demonstrate expertise to prove his credibility. This can be done by convincing experienced members of the written press, by withstanding cross-examination at a hearing or in a court, or by publishing and meeting the tests of refereed journals.

4. The critic is allowed a fair hearing. The forum in which the discussions are taking place may respond favorably, the critic will be given what he or she considers to be a fair hearing, and that will more or less be the end of it.

5. An attempt to co-opt the critic is made. This is often the next step in cases where a fair hearing is granted. The critic will be thanked for bringing attention to the issue at hand, and may be asked to serve on a high-level advisory committee, admonished as a result to defer any more public activities until the committee's work is done. Such committees are rarely taken seriously, or they have a lifetime exceeding the schedule for the events of interest. Novice critics often take this bait.

6. The critic persists and does not succumb to co-option. The fourth response is usually to threaten the critic's well-being: to get him or her fired, or cut funding, bring a lawsuit, exert pressure on public officials at his or her institution, etc. The discrediting can occasionally involve more personal efforts: investigations into the critic's personal life looking for scandal, or alleging the critic is only interested in personal fame or financial gain.

Above all, effective criticship requires discipline and is in many ways an art form. I offer the following helpful hints to aid aspiring critics in avoiding typical beginners' pitfalls:

  • Make no errors, particularly technical errors. Spokespersons for and employees of established interests will be protected by their institutions unless they demonstrate a truly extraordinary degree of incompetence or mendacity. But the critic stands alone, protected only by his or her credibility. The demonstration of error quickly results in the erosion of such credibility.
  • Understand your own motives, purposes and goals: understand what you want, and why you want it. Also try to understand your opponents' assumptions, arguments, evidence and goals as well as you understand your own.
  • Cultivate the press. Understand the press, Never mislead the press. The critic's objectives should include being the first person called by the press for comment or explanations. It is also best for the novice critic to avoid TV reporters unless he or she knows that they and their editors know the difference between a scientific or policy disagreement and a train wreck.
  • Acquire some friends but avoid the zealots and crackpots who, unfortunately, are found in all camps in serious policy debates.
  • Never assume that a conspiracy is underway. This is not to say that there are no conspiracies, but making such an assumption without overwhelming evidence will not only detract from your credibility, but also will lead you down hopeless rabbit trails.
  • Beware of strangers bearing gifts. Be particularly wary of copies of supposedly sensitive documents that are delivered anonymously.
  • Be scrupulous about your taxes and other financial affairs. A critic's tax returns and credit record will be examined carefully.
  • Assume that all telephone, email and other such communications are being monitored. They often will be.
  • Remember that so-called scientific or technical experts have no qualifications beyond those of any other citizen to express opinions on policy or policy outcomes. A delicate balance between the roles of credible expert and advocate is difficult to strike.
  • It is helpful to have competent legal counsel available from time to time.
  • Finally, remember that if bitten when swimming with sharks, the cardinal rule is, Do not bleed!

Dean Abrahamson is a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, and a visiting professor at the Institute of Physics and Technical Physics, Chalmers Technical University in Goteberg, Switzerland. The above was adapted from an article appearing in the July 2000 issue of Physics and Society.

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