I was recently reading a discussion about artists’ reactions to commentary on their work. While many artists view their work as occupying a place of its own, removed from the reach of discourse, their audience sometimes feels obliged to analyze it, dissect it, categorize its various attributes, and induce from those attributes the central meanings and intents of the creator. I recall artists saying, “If that’s what you see in it, that’s ok with me.” Other artists find commentary dissecting their work as mainly irrelevant to what they believe they are doing in life. Still others are offended. Clearly, similar reactions occur, but perhaps at a different rate, in the literary arts, where words rather than materials are the medium.
However, it does seem when a piece generates intense and long-lasting attention by the audience, it signals an important contribution. Work that is discussed and dissected by hundreds of audience members over years generally is viewed as valuable.
I wondered whether there are similar distinctions between the creator and the audience in the social sciences and natural sciences. These domains of creation are governed by more well-defined paradigms, greater constraints on forms of presentation, and heavily governed norms of conclusions. The act of creation required for the product may be more linked explicitly to past work; its uniqueness has less value.
Further, while some of the power of art is its ability to generate different reactions across audience members, much of the focus of scientific papers is guiding the reader to a single reaction. The desired reaction is a certainty that the conclusion of the writer is correct.
But research papers do sometimes generate diverse reactions. This generally occurs in one of three ways. First, readers may question the conclusions as being unjustified by the presented evidence. Such reactions often occur during the peer-review process that precedes the dissemination of a research product. If such skepticism is displayed by several reviewers, the product is not disseminated by the publication organ.
Second, the readers may question the integrity of the data generation process. If this occurs during peer review, it may similarly yield a rejection by the journal. If an article appears that generates such reaction, it can sometimes stimulate another researcher to mount a rebuttal to the original paper.
Third, the readers may question whether the required assumptions underlying the research findings are plausible. When this occurs, other work is also stimulated, but this generally is work that portends important developments might possibly be occurring. Many fields wobble back and forth between periods of relative stability and periods of controversy and ferment. In the times of stability, there is consensus on the important questions and the appropriate methods to address the questions. But all approaches to inquiry rest on certain assumptions. When a field begins to questions those basic, well-accepted assumptions, look out for controversy! Further, when a paper generates intense and long-lasting discussions challenging long-held assumptions, it is often viewed as an important contribution.
So, compared to artists facing critics deconstructing their work into constituent components, the world of social and natural sciences seems inevitably different. Acts of creation explicitly build on one another over time dialectically. Critical dissection is desired and mandatory. That is how the goal of the creator (the conclusion he or she reached) is widely acknowledged as having been achieved. Where the two domains of creation come back together, however, is the fact that intense controversy and long-lasting discussions about a piece of work generally means something important has been created.