The urge to criticise

Watching the news of this year's Nobel prize winners appearing on Twitter and elsewhere over the past week has been a learning experience for me. The first couple (physiology or medicine and physics) were fine – the reactions were largely excited and congratulatory. But then came chemistry. Even before the announcement that Yonath, Steitz and Ramakrishnan had won for their studies on the structure of the ribosome, the twittosphere was replete with sarcastic wit about the fact that a biological discovery would probably win. And sure enough – the fact that the ribosome is a biological structure seemed more important to many twitterers and bloggers than the achievements of the prizewinners. As Nature put it:
"It is the third time in seven years that the chemistry Nobel has been awarded to crystallographers who have determined the structure and function of a complex biological molecule. "It does seem to be a recurring theme," says Thomas Lane, president of the American Chemical Society. But at its heart, this structural biology is "fundamentally chemistry", adds Jeremy Sanders, head of physical sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK, "even if many chemists had never heard of any of the winners"." A commenter at the Sceptical Chymist blog wrote: "To me, chemistry is the study of atomic and molecular structure and understanding how these structures affect the properties of molecules and molecular assemblies. In this respect, the work of Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath falls right into the heart of what chemists do." Quite.

This was nothing, of course, to the reaction to the announcement that Herta Muller was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Many in the UK and America, myself included, had never heard of this writer. Rather than by reacting with curiosity and interest in her work, the main intent of twitterers seemed to be to sneer either at her or at the Nobel committee, implying that the award was not deserved in some way. I was glad to read a piece in the Guardian today correctly pointing out that "By awarding the 2009 Nobel prize for literature to Herta Müller, the Swedish Academy is not only honouring a beautiful writer, but also expanding our concept of Europe". (I'll refrain from commenting here about the non-winning, introspective, self-regarding US literature about the collapse of the American Dream, etc;-). ) I was also glad to read that the publishers Serpents Tail and Granta are to reissue two of Muller's books in translation. No doubt, as a result of the Nobel, more will continue.

And even this was a storm in a teacup compared with today's announcement that Obama is to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Frankly I'm nauseated by the constant carping nastiness and "jokes" on twitter today, and have "unfollowed" several people as a result – not because of any views one way or the other about the recipient, but because I wish that rather than impulsively and emptily criticising, people might bother to think or find out why the award is given, before jumping in to share their knee-jerk petulance with the world. I was impressed, both by a video interview between a very highly groomed American TV lady and the chair of the Nobel committee in which he explained their rationale for the award (unanimous, across the political spectrum of the committee members from left to right), and with another one of Obama's reaction speech (video embedded at link). There's lots of good in all of this if people care to listen, not least in the mood of consensus building, which is essential if the world is to make anything of the political, economic, social and environmental mess it is currently in.

9 thoughts on “The urge to criticise

  1. Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. What amazes me most is that often the critics have little or no knowledge of the subjects they’re pontificating about. I know I have ranted about the Booker Prize in the past but at least I’ve read the books before going off. This year I haven’t read a single one of the shortlist so cannot possibly comment.

  2. Maxine – Oh, well-said!! Far too often, people react in, as you put it, a “knee-jerk” way, without finding out the truth of the matter. Whatever one may feel about the choice of Nobel Laureates, it’s so important to find out what’s really going on before making all kinds of statements. The best arguments are the ones that are supported by something other than one’s own initial reaction.

  3. That is the danger of twittering and email it is so quick and immediate that it easy to be critical and take cheap shots before thinking out a situation.
    I think I was possibly guilty of this myself in my first shocked reaction to this award to President Obama. I thought the committee had cheapened the award yet again. At least I made my comments from the position of having read both The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris; books that tell the story of the solid achievements of the first sitting president to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
    I have also read Margaret MacMillan’s book about the 1919 Paris peace conference in which the other sitting president to win the award Woodrow Wilson was the major figure, until illness and a new congress destroyed his vision of peace.
    I was concerned that only 9 months into a presidency the expectations of the world have been raised to stratospheric levels, while the actual achievements have been very limited. Not surprising as the current problems are enormous and no one man can meet such high expectations. Even such a great orator as Barack Obama can not eliminate evil in the world. Russia is still Russia and Iran is still Iran, Burma is still Burma, and hope alone won’t change that situation.

  4. I can’t comment on the chemistry prize, Maxine — my scientific activities are devoted entirely to trying to get a grip on Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, now being read for the second time, much to the detriment of my mental stability — but with regard to the literature and peace awards, and the general thrust of the post, I am wholly in agreement. With both those, I pretty well knew what to expect, especially in the US, so I’ve steered clear of commentaries since the first reactions emerged.

  5. Thank you for this, Maxine; when I heard the news about the Nobel Peace Prize early Monday morning, I could almost predict the responses from a couple of prominent science bloggers. As expected, they expressed “concerns” and skepticism, arising, of course, from their informed, expert political and international policy positions. /sarcasm Apart from your post here, only Greg Laden expressed opinions similar to my own.
    Yesterday, I discussed this issue with a friend who’s Brazilian, and her support rationale was similar to Laden’s and to yours. I think it’s difficult for many Americans, even those who consider themselves to be progressive and well-educated, to understand how others outside the US view our election of President Obama and our responses to his actions. If I hadn’t spent time in the UK earlier this year, I’m not sure I would be aware of this either, and I’ve been an Obama supporter from the get-go.
    For those who continue to carp on the Peace Price choice, I’d like to know what else they demand from Obama in response. He has expressed very clearly that he doesn’t feel he’s in the same league as other prizewinners, and that he takes it as a challenge to accomplish appropriate tasks. He has also stated that he will donate the prize money to charity. What more do people expect, really? Honestly.

  6. Agreed on all counts, Barn Owl – I thought Obama’s response typically gracious, self-deprecating and generous. (Bit like when that US university would not give him an honorary degree because he hadn’t achieved enough, and he agreed.)
    Gorbachev was another politician more respected outside his country than inside, and I think in the historical sense, he achieved quite significant things (taking the long view).

  7. I agree..the sniping is excessive, and often betrays a smallness of spirit. But I was lured to this post (seeing only the headline in my reader) in hopes that it would address not just the urge to criticize, but the urge to opine more generally. That, of course, is what lies at the root of web2.0, yet I’ve found very little written about it. The Pope (!) in his message on web2.0
    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20090124_43rd-world-communications-day_en.html
    emphasized our natural – God given – propensity to be social. Points to him for getting to the heart of the matter, but when it comes to religion I happen to be in the Dawkins/Hitchens parish, and am looking for something more…substantive. The urge to comment on every damn thing – simply because we can – is a natural extension of our pondering and reflecting about the world we encounter, but perhaps it comes at the expense of that pondering and reflecting? If anyone can point me to articles, musings, studies etc. that focus particularly on this social aspect of social media, I’m grateful – email me at petter at gmail dot com. Comments?:)

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