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Answering critics can add fuel to controversy

Naturevolume 444page265 (2006) | Download Citation

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Sir

Your Editorial “To build bridges, or to burn them” and News Feature “In the name of nature” raise important points about criticism of science and how scientists should best respond (Nature 443, 481; 2006 and Nature 443, 498–501; 2006). The News Feature concerns radical environmentalists and animal-rights activists, but the problem covers a wider area, often involving more enlightened criticism of science from outside the scientific establishment and even, sometimes, from within.

The critics feel passionately that they are right, and that their viewpoints have been unfairly neglected by the establishment. They strike a populist note. They bring into the public arena technical claims that few can properly evaluate. They are sometimes able to generate astonishing amounts of publicity. We all know examples from our own fields or from the media.

Responding to this kind of criticism can be very difficult. It is hard to answer unfair charges of élitism without sounding élitist to non-experts. A direct response may just add fuel to controversies. Critics, who are often prepared to devote immense energies to their efforts, can thrive on the resulting 'he said, she said' situation.

Scientists in this type of situation would do well to heed the advice in Nature's Editorial. Keep doing what you are doing. And when you have the chance, try to patiently explain why what you are doing is interesting and exciting, and may even be useful one day.

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  1. Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton, 08540, New Jersey, USA

    • Edward Witten

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https://doi.org/10.1038/444265a

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