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Sunday, February 07, 2010

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.


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