A ladder of responses to criticism, from the most responsible to the most destructive

In a recent discussion thread, I mentioned how I’m feeling charitable toward David Brooks, Michael Barone, and various others whose work I’ve criticized over the years, because their responses have been so civilized and moderate.

Consider the following range of responses to an outsider pointing out an error in your published work:

1. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, fix it publicly and thank the person who told you about it.

2. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, quietly fix it without acknowledging you’ve ever made a mistake.

3. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, don’t ever acknowledge or fix it, but be careful to avoid this error in your future work.

4. Avoid looking into the question, ignore the possible error, act as if it had never happened, and keep making the same mistake over and over.

5. If forced to acknowledge the potential error, actively minimize its importance, perhaps throwing in an “everybody does it” defense.

6. Attempt to patch the error by misrepresenting what you’ve written, introducing additional errors in an attempt to protect your original claim.

7. Attack the messenger: attempt to smear the people who pointed out the error in your work, lie about them, and enlist your friends in the attack.

We could probably add a few more rungs to the latter, but the basic idea is that response 1 is optimal, responses 2 and 3 are unfortunate but understandable, response 4 represents at the very least a lost opportunity for improvement, and responses 5, 6, and 7 increasingly pollute the public discourse.

David Brooks is a pretty solid 4 on that scale, which isn’t great but in retrospect is like a breath of fresh air, given the 6’s and 7’s we’ve been encountering lately.

Most of the responses I’ve seen, in academic research and also the news media, have been 1’s. Or, at worst, 2’s and 3’s. From that perspective, Brooks’s stubbornness (his 4 on the above scale) has been frustrating. But it can, and has, been much worse. So I appreciate that, however Brooks handles criticism of his own writing, he does not go on the attack. Similarly, I was annoyed when Gregg Easterbrook did response 2, but, in retrospect, that 2 doesn’t seem so bad at all.

As I said, I put the above into a comment thread, but I thought it’s something we might want to refer to more generally, so it’s convenient to give it its own post.