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In many situations, when someone criticises a procedure, or a policy, a common response is something like "yeah, we know it's crap, but you're not presenting an alternative solution, so shut up". There are many examples in the comments here, and this kind of response often comes up in response to criticism of government policies.

In general, is this kind of counter argument legitimate? Is there an onus on the person criticising something to come up with an alternative solution (or point to an alternative solution that already exists? Or if not, is the argument based on some kind of fallacy?

  • Many people criticize Hitler for how he tried to kill of all the Jews and other undesirables. Is there an onus on the critics to provide an better way to kill off all those people? =) – David H Mar 10 '15 at 3:36
  • I don't think this question belongs in this forum. – Alexander S King Mar 10 '15 at 4:39
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    @DavidH: "Many people criticize Hitler for how he tried to kill of all the Jews". Really? I thought most criticisms there focused on the fact that killings were undertaken at all, not how they were done... – naught101 Mar 10 '15 at 4:59
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    @AlexanderSKing: Ok. Can you give a reason, so I can try to improve the question if possible? – naught101 Mar 10 '15 at 5:00
  • @naught101 That's precisely my point. Hitler would have been criticized all the same regardless of how else he might have done it. What if Hitler had responded to critics with, "Yes, I know killing them is wrong, but you're not presenting an alternative way to make 'em dead, so shut up"? – David H Mar 10 '15 at 6:01
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This can be a logical fallacy --any attack on an argument that isn't actually related to the strength or the premises of the argument is a fallacy, by definition. If I make a claim, and you criticize it without an alternative, that does not mean that any correct points you make about my claim are invalidated.

On the other hand (from a sociological viewpoint) it is a legitimate criticism of a person's overall contribution that they never produce any positive ideas --it just isn't a legitimate criticism of their actual arguments.

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The key difference is between situations of thought and action.

In a battle, or an emergency, something needs to be done; and what ought to be done, should be the best possible under the circumstances - of which time itself is a key factor; were it not, then the best possible action may in fact, not have been the best; and there may have been better actions one could have done.

In thought, time is still important, but in a different way; and critiques that are important remain important and a critic knows these criticisms and can critique via these criticisms.

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There may be situations where this form of argument is legitimate, although I might phrase it a bit differently:

A: I'm an eliminativist. I don't believe that love exists. The commonly-understood notion of love is nonsensical because [...].

B: What do you think is actually happening to a person who thinks she's in love?

A: I don't know. Eventually, neuroscience will figure that out.

B: OK. Until that happens, do you mind if the rest of us continue to use the word "love" to describe this scenario?

A: Yes, I do mind. Nobody has proven that love exists. The burden of proof is on you, not me.

B: Since you have provided no alternative label for this scenario, we need to call it something, and "love" is convenient and commonly understood, I'm going to keep using that word anyway.

(This is a deliberately simplistic caricature of eliminativism, used to make a point. It should not be mistaken for a real argument against eliminativism.)


From a scientific point of view, a theory can be falsified in one domain, but still produce good results in another. For example, it was long known that Newtonian gravity fails to accurately describe the precession of Mercury (although at the time they believed there must have been an additional planet to account for this, rather than the theory actually being wrong). Nevertheless, people continued to use Newton, and they still do today, even though general relativity is strictly more accurate. Newton, as it happens, is easier to calculate, and produces results that are just as good under a variety of real-world situations. This is because Newtonian gravity is an empirically-validated theory. That is, Newton didn't just make numbers and formulas up and write them down. He tested and refined his theory against the real world. Any theory of gravity that wants to replace Newton had better produce the same results as Newton observed under those conditions, or else it's empirically wrong. But if no viable theory can contradict Newton within that domain, then Newton must be correct within that domain, and so there can be no objection to continuing to use Newton within that domain even if it's been falsified elsewhere.

In short: Once a theory is empirically tested, those tests don't just up and vanish when the next theory comes along. So long as we stay within the boundaries of those test conditions, our original theory is more or less guaranteed to be correct no matter how science develops in the future, unless we discover that those initial tests were somehow flawed or improperly conducted (as happened with N rays).

Continuing with our gravity example, it is widely believed that general relativity is incomplete, because it produces mathematical singularities under certain conditions, particularly when trying to describe black holes and the early universe. This does not invalidate general relativity when used to describe the rest of the universe, and it would still be valid even if we had a working theory of quantum gravity to replace it with.

So, to return to OP's question, if someone were to criticize a usage of general relativity on the grounds that GR is incomplete, it would not be unreasonable for us to ask what they want us to use instead of GR, particularly since there's no single widely accepted theory of quantum gravity. On the other hand, if we're trying to use GR in an area where it is specifically known to be incomplete, then perhaps that hypothetical person would have a point: you can't go around applying broken theories to situations they're known to handle poorly.

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I would say the answer depends on the situation. If a criticism is voiced, and the group feels there is still a need to move forward, then I'd say the onus is on the critic. However, if the criticism is sufficiently profound such that the group feels it is best to stay put and contemplate further, the critic is absolved of this duty.

I like this particular approach because it handles some difficult situations well, such as when all plans are bad (if you believe there are situations that should be felt through, not planned)

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I would say absolutely not. You do not necessarily need to know HOW to do something better in order to know the way it is being done is inefficient. A well thought realistic alternative may add some weight to the critics argument but this is not a requirement to criticise in the first place.

  • Assuming efficiency is the only problem in question (that wasn't the original intention), isn't it the case that even if you know it's inefficient, you don't necessarily know that it's not maximally efficient - that is, that there is no better way? – naught101 Mar 10 '15 at 11:33
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    Valid point and as you say efficiency is not the only problem the question raises but maybe on many of the problems the same rules apply. If, as someone who cannot put forward an alternative solution, we assume maximum inefficiency has been reached would we see things, situations, evolve and get better? Is it not the critic who helps the general improvement process take place. Even if maximum efficiency had been reached how would we know? Does criticism, with or without alternative solutions, not give enthusiasm to look for continual improvement? – Fred Mar 10 '15 at 12:35
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If someone is suggesting that some action is being done so badly that doing nothing at all would be an improvement, that person is suggesting an alternative solution: doing nothing.

If someone is suggesting that some action is being done so badly that it would be worthwhile to seek out improvements, that person is suggesting what might be an alternative solution (it may be that solutions were sought out and the current action is the best that was found, in which case the suggestion might be equivalent to what's already being done).

If someone suggests that an action doesn't seem to work as well as people apparently think it does, the person's initial interest may be in finding out whether that perception is correct. If everyone thought the problem worked better than it actually does, and as a consequence there had been no efforts made to solve it, that would suggest that research toward a solution might be helpful. It the problems were well-known but efforts at solution had failed, that would suggest that earlier research should be examined as a first step before setting out on a new course.

Merely knowing that something seems bad isn't very meaningful unless one can show that it's worse than it needs to be. The fact that something seems bad may be sufficient to justify having others look briefly at the issue, and in some cases that may be very useful, but should have little meaning beyond that unless one can show that it's needlessly bad.

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It depends on the situation. For example, the average person knows essentially nothing about nuclear energy, but incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are clearly alarming. In fact, I'm a huge critic of the way Fukushima has been handled - but I can't offer specific advice, other than removing the secrecy.

Similarly, one might object to a particular economic system or regime based on the number of people living in poverty. Yet the objector might not understand economics well enough to offer specific suggestions for improvement.

  • I guess that just begs the question "should anyone comment on anything they are not well educated about?" – naught101 Apr 4 '17 at 1:52
  • There's a big difference between COMMENT and CRITICIZE. – David Blomstrom Apr 5 '17 at 2:28

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