On Nitpicking. (Or should that be ‘On Nit-Picking’?)

“The stretched twig of peace is at melting point.  People here are literally bursting with war.  This is very much a country that’s going to blow up in its face”.

Dônnnald Beth’lhem, The Day Today

That’s how the social network of science has felt over the last few days.  It all started innocently enough, when two guys called Brian Cox and Robin Ince published a New Statesmen editorial on science-policy relations.  And, through the dark forces of online comment, this very rapidly exploded into outright war between the forces of Uber-Science on one hand, and the armies of History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science on the other.  Ok, it’s not going to be putting Iraq in the shade any time soon (although putting it in the shade might be a good thing, it does get jolly hot there).  But the progress of the debate has followed the old adage about war – largely tedious, with brief periods of violent activity.  It seems to have somewhat spiralled to a close, and you can find your own position by placing yourself relative to this piece by Jon Butterworth (which, with Cox’s comment, clears up much unclarity from the original editorial) compared with Jack Stilgoe’s / Rebekah Higgitt’s opposition to the original editorial.  I think, short of hand-to-hand combat between all the protagonists (which hasn’t been ruled out), there’s little to add to the debate.  But it’s given renewed emphasis to thoughts I’ve harboured for many a year, independent of this whole fiasco.  And, to get them off my chest, to the land of blog they go.

So a disclaimer:  I AM *NOT* TRYING TO EXTEND THE NEW STATESMAN DEBATE.  Goodness knows the internet has only limited space.  Instead, this has been catalysed by a specific recurring theme running through the comments.  It’s about ‘nit-picking’.  And as The Debate has been occupying an inordinate amount of my brain-space and Twitter feed (the two are mostly separable, currently) it’s going to be today’s case-study.  Sorry about that.  But the point I’m making isn’t de facto about the New Statesman piece, or even the broader issues of climate change policy it brought up.  My point is tangential and general.  And it’s something like this: the accusation of ‘nit-picking’ has a particular role in a debate, and that’s to label a criticism so small as to be irrelevant.  Thus what one chooses to slight as a nit-pick is indicative of what one believes the boundaries of the debate to be.  The nit-pick itself may be small, maybe even discardable as rhetorical flotsam, but the attitudes underlying nit-picks can be very mighty indeed.

To me, ‘nit-picking’ is the negative side to perfectly healthy critical questioning.  In an (academic) combat situation, it’s often perfectly reasonable to ask your opponent to clarify their terms, or pick them up on inaccuracies.  Even in friendlier climates a nit-picking-esque attitude can be productive – Einstein refused to allow an odd little feature (the constant velocity of light) in the otherwise completely consistent Maxwell’s equations to go uninvestigated, and look what happened there.   But the actual accusation of ‘nit-picking’ carries different baggage – you’re distracting from the main debate, avoiding the big issue by focussing on particular semantics, expanding on an irrelevant and uninteresting point.  But while these are recognisable, they are not rigorous.  And what The Debate highlighted, for me, was how context-relative ‘irrelevant’ and ‘uninteresting’ are.

Take the criticism of Cox’s and Ince’s historical prelude.  Basically they said scientific developments inform technological developments, and it’s actually more complicated than that.  Cox later apologised for the inaccuracy, but argued that it was irrelevant to his argument.  So that’s all settled then.  But was this nit-picking?  Depends.  Consider these two points.  Firstly, the criticism was reminding Cox and Ince that, like scientists, historians don’t like it when their work is ignored in favour of unsupported claims.  This point is actually a bit more explosive so I’ll handle it with care later.  Secondly, in having its inaccurate use corrected, Actual History got quite a public airing.  Commenters contributed their own favourite examples of science-technology co-developments, nice online sharing of historical knowledge outside the usual forums.  In particular, if Cox learns some history it might appear later in one of his high-profile public science things, and until an historian of science appears on an A-Z of World’s Sexiest People we appreciate a bit of help in the public realm.  Particularly when much of the public face of history of science, as in Cox and Ince’s prelude, is actually semi-made-up Pseudohistory.  So, a nit-pick for some, the public face of an entire discipline for others.  To move to general terms, a nit-pick is relative to a) the individual and their background, b) how the claim is being used (being informative? Or being critical?) and c) what’s at stake for the different parties.  And probably even more.

This may seem obvious, and my case-study vanilla.  So let’s try something more controversial.  Let’s open Pandora’s Box.  The Scientific Method.  People who’ve been following this debate are currently screaming at me to stop, but it’s too late I’ve already done it.  Cox and Ince’s editorial, and a wave of their supporters, made hefty reference to The (i.e. One and Only and Self-Evident) Scientific Method.  This is a big, indeed massive, no-no in Science Studies.  Unlike previously, there was a lot at stake here.  If the trans-human authority of The Scientific Method is held up to question1, if it emerges as just another ‘infallible’ source of knowledge like religious texts or QI, then Cox and Ince’s ideal for autonomy becomes difficult to uphold.  But if, to maintain the united power of a single scientific method, decades of Science Studies work is swept aside… well, a whole academic heritage gets labelled as misguided.  Unsurprisingly, people got a bit cross.

But, whistling overly nonchalantly, let’s sidestep the crossness.  To my mind, the general problem is one of agenda-setting; what do we want the debate to cover?  Cox and Ince had raised the issue of where politics should end and science begin in climate change debates.  Their answer – when questions are about the natural world, only the scientific method may safely tread.  Alternatively, for Science-Studiers, answers involve engagement over the specific problem – which involves discussing its peculiarities, such as how ‘scientific methodology’ behaves in the given patch.  Accusations of nit-picking basically say ‘you’re going for the wrong problem’.  In the Cox-Stilgoe-et al. shenanigans these accusations were directed at the Science Studiers, and mean ‘we’re showing how climate change denial comes up against successful scientific practice – the success is obvious, so don’t question the scientific practice’.  But in an alternate universe, I am a vastly successful communicator of Science Studies and also appeared on an A-Z of World’s Sexiest People (scientists, hurry up and discover wormholes please).  I write a guest editorial advocating a pluralistic approach to dealing with climate change deniers.  An angry commenter picks me up on my use of incorrect CO2 emission percentages.  A counter-commentator accuses them of ‘nit-picking’ – meaning ‘this is a general methodological argument, the exact data is irrelevant’.   Are these accusations fair? And more importantly, are they helpful?

In fact, I’d argue (in both cases) an important debate – given a unified goal of facilitating productive climate change conversations – is being shunted brutally to one side.  And this is where I start worrying about nit-picking accusations.  They force oversimplification on debates.  Even if there is a scientific method, a “primacy of measurement” as Cox puts it, I don’t think any scientist would regard it as giving easy access to nature.  And climate change sceptics clearly aren’t accepting measurements (indeed, they are even presenting their own measurements).  If accusations of a ‘neo-liberal cabal’2 behind climate change are not met head-on, climate change measurements will simply be regarded as distortions.  But, more than that, I worry about the legions of undecided folk, the swing-voters in science-policy debates.  More than hardliners, these are the people science-policy communication should be talking to.  But as a sadly unvocal community in online debates, we don’t really know what they’re thinking.  And the questions shunted to one side as ‘that’s just nit-picking’ might be the questions they’re asking.

Essentially, nit-picks are formed by some prior background.  And true, this background might be ‘I’m a pedant and I feel like being pedantic’.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes nit-picking accusations are valuable.  In particular, I agree with the point that you can’t stuff everything – science policy, detailed history of science, and philosophy of scientific method – into an article (although a hyperlink paints a thousand words).  But they aren’t something that can be thrown around with wanton abandon.  A true nit-pick is often so small as to be easily rectified.  The ones which are harder to shift are often revealing bigger, underlying attitudes.  And these attitudes colour responses.  If Cox and Ince were accused of arrogance or dismissiveness (even though they felt their article was about humility), it could be because people are expecting them to be arrogant or dismissive.  That’s something that needs to be tackled through discussion.  One point that everyone’s starting to agree on is that the two sides need to communicate more.  Yes, absolutely.  But that’s not going to happen while entire swathes of debate are unthinkingly discarded as off-topic, unwanted, irrelevant, ‘nit-picking’.


1 = Although I would like to point out this isn’t actually what questioning the singularity of The Scientific Method is meant to do, and nor does this conclusion necessarily follow from the questioning.

2= This phrase, or something like it, cropped up in a few places on the New Statesman comment thread.  Can’t remember exactly where, and please don’t make me go back through it all.  The counsellor said I’m not ready yet.


An excellent work on science-policy debates (particularly the ‘complicated barrier’ between science and politics) is Heather Douglas’ Science, Policy, and the Value-Free IdealAs is the second half of Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy (the first half is also brilliant, but it’s more general philosophy of science).  For a bit of an opposing view, Harry Collins’ and Robert Evans’ Rethinking Expertise (esp. chapter 7, I think) discusses ways in which, in given circumstances, scientists could be protected from over-exposure to socio-politics.

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6 Responses to On Nitpicking. (Or should that be ‘On Nit-Picking’?)

  1. Nice post. Regarding nit-picking and The Debate, Jon Butterworth’s contribution* compares the whig history and the singular The Scientific Method to journalists describing his work as “atom-smashing” — i.e. a bit wrong but he doesn’t usually care. I think this shows where it’s coming from – most historians and philosophers would regard the Cox/Ince article as more than “a bit” wrong, but for many people it’s not seen that way. The difference between historical accounts is apparently small change to many people (not to myself, but there you go).

    * I mean this one: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/life-and-physics/2012/dec/26/science-politics – “From watching the discussion on twitter and elsewhere, it seems there’s nothing in the editorial which goes beyond “atom-smasher” level here.”

  2. Thanks! Absolutely agree, Jon’s post made the problem really crystal clear for me.

  3. Jim Grozier says:

    Only just found this – clearly did not scroll far enough down before. Here’s some nit-picks for you: “data” is plural; “alternate” means first one thing and then the other, and is not the same as “alternative”. And “But as a sadly unvocal community in online debates, we don’t really know what they’re thinking” should be “But we don’t really know what they, as a sadly unvocal community in online debates, are thinking” – the clause attaches itself to the nearest noun and you need to take care that it’s the right one! Finally, for my take on the scientific method, see

  4. Pingback: IFLScienceyness: A Defence of Social Media Science | sidewayslookatscience

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