“Peer review review” (Peer review process)

BOBBY4Most of my posts deal with phenomenon I don’t believe in, such as Yeti, homeopathic medicine, and crystal balls. Today we will focus on something I believe in strongly: The peer review and publication process as it applies to science.

The process, in brief: 1. A scientist conducts an experiment. 2. The scientist writes about it and submits the paper for review by other subject matter experts. 3. The paper is possibly revised after comments from reviewers. 4. The paper is published, if warranted. While the process of making it into a peer-reviewed journal ends there, attempts at replication and falsification continue, and may even lead to publication later in a peer-reviewed journal that reaches the opposite conclusion.

Peer review is a key part of the Scientific Method (http://tinyurl.com/pxmxn4s), and the process helps reduce the chance that papers which rely on faulty conclusions or shoddy research methods will be published. Having the worked dissected by a handful of Ph.D.s , then read by many more subject matter experts, is an attempt to validate the science.

Consider why this is important. If a geologist suspects he has found holes in climate change theory, he should submit his work for peer review, not e-mail his findings to Sen. James Inhofe. If a microbiologist thinks she has cured the common cold, this should be announced to a journal’s review board, not hawked in newspaper advertisements. If the Institute for Creation Research claims to have a satellite photo of God speaking the world into existence 5,000 years ago, this evidence should be submitted to a peer-reviewed astronomy journal, not posted to the ICR website. Indeed, the surest sign of pseudoscience is when the peer-review process is bypassed in favor of going straight to a populous selected for their bias or blissful ignorance.

A last-second victory by your team may cause you to have a mostly sleepless night. Eating guacamole can cause one to overdo it and end up feeling stuffed. So even the most wonderful events can have drawbacks, and that brings us to potential deficiencies in the peer review and publication process.

Confirmation bias can occur even in a field whose role largely consists of combating it. With contentious issues like String Theory or the Multiverse, prejudice can seep in and the reviewer may give unmerited credit or undeserving scorn to a viewpoint. This is where the editor really earns his money, though he could acquiesce to bias as well. There is also the possibility of personal favoritism or disdain directed at a researcher, which is why some journals prefer researchers remain anonymous in the review process. While science is cold and detached, those executing it are still susceptible to human frailties.

From this regrettable foible, we move to outright fraud. Unscrupulous researches have been known to review their own work under an assumed name, then praise it mightily. In the most extreme case yet uncovered, mathematics journal editor Mohamed El Naschie reviewed several articles of his own before publishing them. Although more effort is now made to verify the existence and credentials of reviewers, there are more than 100 articles published in peer-reviewed journals that were, in fact, not peer-reviewed.

Another issue is vanity publishing, where a journal will print anything for a price. This has been standard practice in the novella and poetry business for years, and this tactic has been adapted for science journalism. To illustrate how easily the system can be taken advantage of, skeptics have gotten articles published in lorem ipsum, or in long strings of gibberish that were said to be authored by Simpsons characters. While these were not, of course, peer-reviewed journals, the fact that they are advertised as such harms the reputation of the process.

These journals with technical-sounding names that bypass peer review are the bane of science and a lifeline for alternative medicine gurus, anti-vaccine activists, and creationists. They can be aided by lackeys in mainstream media who fail to properly vet news of miracle cures and government-pharmaceutical industry cover-ups. Even the Wall Street Journal allowed a creationist to write a column endorsing the idea.

Despite these shortcomings, the peer review process remains the most objective and preeminent way to assess scientific work. And while laudable, peer review is only a preparatory step to help ensure research methods are satisfactory, and that the Scientific Method is followed. Flaws could still slip by well-meaning, skilled reviewers, but the goal is to keep the process transparent. Peer review and publication means the paper’s conclusion is realistic, but this does not necessarily validate the theory. Replication and experimentation should continue.

The importance of the process has even been recognized by the legal community. In Daubert vs. Dow Pharmaceuticals and subsequent cases, the courts have ruled that research must be sound, independently reviewed, and use unbiased methodology before it can be considered science. This is crucial for some types of cases, where the validity of a potential cure that a hospital refused to administer may be the focal point of a malpractice suit.

Like mediums who refuse the James Randi challenge or Therapeutic Touch practitioners who decline to participate in double blind studies, self-described researchers who never engage in peer review have a litany of excuses for not doing so. Creation.com goes on for a few thousand words ostensibly explaining why it won’t submit, though it never answers the question. It meanders on about supposed flaws in the peer review publication process and about the majesty of God’s creation, but the closest it comes to explaining why it won’t submit is saying that science writers and editors are biased against them. Creationists’ complete lack of merit, education, and competence in biology and cosmology is deemed a nonfactor.

Among the reasons creationists would not be published in Science, Nature, or a lesser journal is because their field is not falsifiable. There is no way to test the alleged framework of the process, and it lacks any predictive quality.

Hence, creationists have created their own print products and deemed them peer-reviewed journals. Persons who ignore all contrary evidence and cite the Bible as science peruse tripe from their brethren and then publish it. From a linguistic standpoint, this could probably be called a peer-reviewed journal. But it is not a scientific peer-reviewed journal. The same applies to alternative medicine publications and periodicals dedicated to psychic awareness.

Answers in Genesis posits that the complexity of life is proof of their position, and that it defies belief that the nervous system could have come from anything by God. The circular reasoning of the first point and the logical fallacy of relying on personal incredulity to bolster the second point have been addressed in other posts. But here, the premise is that since creationism cannot be falsified, there would be no reason to examine the evidence, or to consider it for peer review.

As it so happens, this blog is not a peer-reviewed journal, so I can examine the evidence. The proof for creation put forth by Answers in Genesis are “miracles,” the “marvelous reflection” of that creation, and that “things looked designed.” Those are the arguments of those who contend heathen hatred and bias are the only reasons their ideas are considered inferior to those of Hawking, Sagan, and Einstein.

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