Peer review

Peer review, mere review, and smear review

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Peer review, mere review, and smear review

Andrew Sibley here discusses a thoughtful article by Fred Pearce in the Guardian (02 February 2010) on the climate change scandal, an article which had also been mentioned to me by a kind reader recently. The article takes a critical look at peer review, a well-justified critical look in my view.

I have written about the problem with peer review here, and would recommend Frank Tipler’s paper on the subject.

The basic problem is that the peer review process, intended to enforce quality, can end up enforcing mere orthodoxy or, worse, mediocrity. Or worst of all, as in the now-famous climategate e-mails, it can lead to a classic “bunker” mentality.

I would be inclined to treat all science-based dissent as legitimate. The mere fact that some scientists cannot replicate others’ work or support their conclusions is not evidence of incompetence or dishonesty. It may lead to useful corrections or valuable new information.

Of course, if someone claims that climate change is caused by space aliens, an evil plot by a minority group, or proof that Jesus is coming again soon, I would say, please, this is not science. Science is about evidence from nature.

I was trying to remember recently what peer review reminded me of, and then I suddenly remembered:

For some time, politicians in my country have tried to prevent interest groups from publishing the opinions of politicians about controversial issues during an election. All the parties voted for that. Of course they voted for it! They piously informed the public that their policy prevented wealthy special interests from hijacking the election.*

But that was nonsense. What the policy really did was guarantee that politicians could keep off the table issues that no party wanted to tackle, even though much of the electorate wanted the politicians to tackle them.

Peer review can function the same way. It can simply prevent the publication of problematic data that the current establishment in science does not want to tackle.

*This problem of wealthy special interests could be dealt with simply by requiring any participant to identify the funders within the ad itself. If it turned out to be Microsoft or Ford or McDonald’s, well, anyone smart enough to find their way to the polling station without falling down a hole somewhere would consider the possible motives.

4 Replies to “Peer review, mere review, and smear review

  1. 1
    T. lise says:

    All these news of climategate, IPCC blunders and all the peer review stories listed should be read with a background music. The background music no less than the words of Francis collins, when he said:

    “…the idea behind the movie Expelled, which tries to make that same case — that there is a conspiracy to squash the truth. That viewpoint totally misunderstands the nature of science. Anybody who has lived within the scientific community would immediately — regardless of their worldview — rebel against the idea that science would be able to sustain such a conspiracy. Scientists are all about upsetting and overturning things. And if you’re the one who’s discovered how to overturn evolution, you’re going to win the Nobel Prize!
    The position that people on the outside of science — like the creationists and the people in the ID camp — have adopted, that such a conspiracy could actually exist for more than thirty seconds, completely flies in the face of the realities of the sociology of the field of science. It’s an insult.”

  2. 2
    P. Mahoney says:

    Science is about evidence from nature.

    Precisely! And the simple fact that the senses on which empirical evidence depends are necessarily incomplete (or even defective, as Plato would have us say)indicates the deference that scientific “evidence” owes to logical truth.

    This is why Darwinian evolution will not be able to compete with Intelligent Design in the marketplace of ideas. The maths have been done and the logic is proven. The evidence is entirely secondary.

  3. 3
    nullasalus says:

    Expelled didn’t attest to some kind of massive and deep conspiracy, but a simple, if extensive (and in essence, social and cultural) bias. Nor was the claim that ID opponents are running around trying to “squash the truth”, so much as squash (in ID supporters’ views) legitimate possibilities and perspectives.

    Collins’ quote is sadly dated. First because it implies an idyllic view of scientists that is currently trending downwards – alas, scientists are human beings, given to pettiness, pet projects, short-sightedness, greed, and all the rest of humanity’s foibles. Second, because it makes a reference to the Nobel peace prize, which lost some of its luster thanks to the politicizing with it going from tongue in cheek to out and out farce.

    Not to say global warming isn’t real or evolution is untrue or so on. But it’s time to bury the nonsense belief about scientists and academics being pure, noble seekers of truth who never are subject (individually or as a group) to some serious failings.

  4. 4
    O'Leary says:

    Conspiracy? I am glad that Francis Collins, quoted by t.lise at 1 above, is not handling emergencies in my local hospital.

    But he has more important duties, of course.

    No conspiracy, just simple lack of facilities for long term patients.

    That is – in my view – the big one. What to do re people who will take five years to get better, if they do.

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