What is the Meaning of Public Self-Reviews? Commentary on two Contributions to the Self-Criticism of Social Scientists

Illustration: Francisco Rizi (1614-1685), Auto de Fe en la plaza Mayor de Madrid (1683)
November 23, 2022
Written by: 
Krešimir Petković
Editor-in-Chief of Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Criticism is an integral part of the rational process of progress towards more complete and precise knowledge. Consequently, it provides subjects with opportunities for better and more effective action on an individual and collective level. The suppositions of the Enlightenment worldview include a vision of the progress of science as an open collective process of conjectures and refutations, or at least advancements within a certain paradigm until it is exhausted and overcome by a better one.

Although the social sciences often appear to be culturally bounded and politically conditioned contextual evaluations that lack paradigmatic status, the stated propositions are in principle valid for them as well. This is sometimes called positivism – the unity of method of the natural and social sciences. Therefore, social scientists, like natural scientists, are by academic custom and institutional constraint exposed to criticism of their theses: at scientific conferences, in the academic or general public, or through anonymous review processes of their articles and books. Criticism comes from other, sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes less well-intentioned colleagues, but in the larger picture, no doubt guided by the aforesketched vision of scientific and historical progress.

Keeping with the vision of progress and the importance of criticism, we decided to reverse a bit these established settings and, on this occasion, publish two texts in the somewhat unusual genre of self-criticism of social scientists. This seems scandalous at first, at least within the liberal vision of politics, but also of science. Political and economic liberalism will prefer, as opposed to the all-seeing philosopher-king, the separation of points of analysis and decision-making into a series of islands that form a pluralist paradise archipelago of opposing self-interested subjects competing with each other according to the rules of the game. By following the procedure, we slowly arrive at a greater good for everyone, and the result is a general improvement. It is enough to read Hayek, Popper or early Lindblom to get a theoretical picture of such a social order. In the sphere of science, this would mean that we present theses that other interested parties criticize and vice versa. Science, as another of the liberal public goods, progresses as a whole through the spontaneous interaction of free authors and critics, by the action of the (in)famous invisible hand.

However, why shouldn’t scientists sometimes criticize themselves, be their own public scientific inquisition in a self-reviewing autodafe particolare? Popper himself, as some kind of puritan in the realm of science, asks us to be the strictest with ourselves, that is, with our own theories, trying to refute them as best we can. Even if negative statements make a bibliometric currency in the world of impact-measuring in the scientific industry as part of the cultural industry and the ideological apparatuses of politics – if readers will allow us to step into a paradigm that is more skeptical of liberal enlightenment – self-criticism should not necessarily be an example of a conflict of interest. Sometimes we really see our mistakes better than others, so why not say so? If, well, we were part of the cultural industry and interpellated into the political order, why wouldn’t we try to redefine our position through self-criticism?

Thus, self-criticism should not necessarily be understood as a kind of political admission of one’s own guilt, typical of totalitarianisms where the most important thing is to break the defiant subject who still distinguishes between truth and lies, which carries the risk of expressing this difference and undermining the legitimacy of the order. (Self)punishment is sometimes public just like in the Cultural Revolution – the logic of Maoism is like that – as opposed to the more classic Stalinist style of a boot that can trample a human face forever in some dark interrogation cellar. However, it seems that we are far enough away from such dangers for now. Of course, there is no obstacle to pile up lies on lies, regardless of who told them, nor can the ideological and political dimension be taken away from the discourse of social sciences, which makes them a potential source of political danger. However, publicly correcting one’s own mistakes does not have to lead deeper into political lies, but can bring us closer to the truth and then to progress. This means we accept the risk of self-reviews with a bit of skepticism, remaining for the time being within the comfortable liberal framework.

But if it is not the Spanish Inquisition, Mao or Orwell, nor Adorno or Althusser, is it perhaps Bourdieu, the timidly indicated sociologist? Aren't scientists, covering themselves theatrically with the ash of self-review, gaining a dubious symbolic profit, acting out belated turns of thought, typical for the giants of philosophy with a cult following? Undoubtedly, the scientific field is subject to the logic of symbolic capital, but whatever the political, psychological, sociological, citational and other connotations, the causes and consequences of this maneuver of public self-criticism, which readers can continue to think about, the fact is that here we present scientists who review themselves. We don’t have to go too far. A little Mill will be enough to legitimize the procedure: once stated, published arguments stand or fall in the court of the public. Their epistemological status and possible political consequence do not depend on the intention, that is, they are logically separated from it. Just as the author is not the master of his work, he is not the master of his self-criticism either. The same applies to the self-reviews offered here.

Reviewing self-reviews? In the end, shouldn’t it be necessary to determine whether the authors plagiarized the negative anonymous reviews of their double blind peer review colleagues and whether the self-reviews are of sufficient quality to be published? That would be too much though. Contributions are not reviewed. To review them would mean that we slowly started down the path of infinite regress, because reviews of reviews would also require reviews. That would be too much fun, like in some Borges story.

In the end, the question of whether it is better to criticize yourself or let others do it may be more difficult to answer in principle than when we are faced with concrete examples of self-review practice. Readers of the essays Self-Reflection of Geoepistemology and Children in Time have the opportunity to assess how our two author duos in the experimental sample managed it; that is, how successfully they steered – to use the Levi-Straussian metaphor from the analysis of myths (poor Oedipus) – between overestimating and underestimating their own work. Although written in different and (except in terms of detail) hardly comparable genres, namely Foucauldian spatial analysis and quantitative studies of voting behavior, one thing is certain: both reviews are in their own way relevant and innovative for thinking about the political, i.e. the subject-matter political science deals with. Behind the surface veil of self-referentiality and hermeticity, more precise ways of knowing about the relationship between politics and space and about the socialization of young people into politics are suggested, at the same time contributing to the sharpening and problematization of governing practices in the academic community through its entrenched devices of power and knowledge

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
Faculty of Political Science
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