The 'Descriptive' Curse

Getty Images "The work is basically sound but suffers from being too descriptive." Anyone who has served on grant review panels, participated in promotion and tenure decisions, or made and received editorial decisions, has heard this refrain or its equivalent and knows full well its kiss-of-death implication. As applied above, there is the unstated but intended linkage of the term "descriptive" with a nonmechanistic, non-hypothesis-driven approach to the work under evaluation. It's a comment

Donald Fischman
May 4, 2003
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"The work is basically sound but suffers from being too descriptive."

Anyone who has served on grant review panels, participated in promotion and tenure decisions, or made and received editorial decisions, has heard this refrain or its equivalent and knows full well its kiss-of-death implication. As applied above, there is the unstated but intended linkage of the term "descriptive" with a nonmechanistic, non-hypothesis-driven approach to the work under evaluation. It's a comment that has both puzzled and irritated me.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines descriptive as "characterized by description," and description as "a statement which describes, sets forth or portrays; a graphic or detailed account of a person, thing, scene, or event; i.e., a verbal or pictorial representation." Nowhere does the term imply an absence of mechanistic thinking or a lack of imagination.

Quite the contrary, it is the essence of all physical and biological science. A careful...