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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Peer review: Life, death, and the British Medical Journal

This controversy erupted over estimates of war deaths since World War 2 (1939-1945:)
Researchers from Canada, the UK and Sweden have slammed the influential British Medical Journal (BMJ) for publishing an error-filled study on global war deaths, refusing an equivalent rebuttal article and having a flawed peer-review process.
Apparently, the contested article took issue with the fact that Oslo's International Peace Research Institute data show that global war deaths "declined by more than 90 per cent between 1946 and 2002."

"This is not some trivial academic disagreement," says Andrew Mack, director of the Simon Fraser University-based Human Security Report Project (HSRP), which p published a detailed critique of the BMJ's claims in the December issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution (JCR).

"Accurate statistics on the health impacts of war are critically important not just for researchers but also for humanitarian organizations whose assistance programs save millions of lives around the world."
The BMJ doesn't deny the problem:
"But the BMJ is well aware that its peer review process is flawed," says Spagat. "A recent study, whose authors include the journal's current editor, revealed that, on average, only a third of the 'major errors' deliberately inserted in a BMJ article were picked up by reviewers."
In what other line of work would such incompetence be accepted? Would you like your electrician to achieve only this level of competence? He only "gets" one third of the electrical safety hazards in your home?

And remember, if you live in the UK, your taxes pay for these scholars to "do their thing."
Adds Mack: "There appears to be no way of effectively rebutting BMJ articles that contain unwarranted -- and damaging -- critiques of the work of other scholars.
A couple of years back, I wrote on the problem of peer review: Often, it is simply the way establishment hacks prevent competition from new information and new interpretations.

Re war deaths, two notes:

- It would hardly be surprising if deaths in battle declined steeply, post World War II, because battlefield medicine has greatly improved. Indeed, it was improving during the war itself (1939-1945), and some sources credit the Allies' victory in part to discovery of penicillin, which restored personnel who might otherwise have been disabled or dead. Plasma, anti-malarials, and other drugs also received a huge boost due to the War.

- Modern warfare increasingly targets civilians. It could be 9-11. Or 7-11. Or it could be someone's granny, shopping at a Halal meat market in Iraq, to prepare a family celebration. When the conflict is between a trained terrorist and your granny, you should expect low "battlefield" casualties. That is not a battlefield, after all; it is a monstrous crime scene.

- Still, it ought to be possible to maintain another point of view, with solid references. That's one thing peer review should enable, but it is increasingly obvious that peer reviewers do not want to bother.

Anyway, the intelligent design controversy is hardly the only area where peer review can merely maintain a convenient consensus - or tweak beards safely in a politically correct way.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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