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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The case against peer review

Scientistry is demonstrably far more dangerous to science than religion:

The conventional narrative holds that, as the advantages of pooling knowledge became obvious, all scientists adopted the Royal Society's conventions: now, scientific papers are published freely. But that's not quite true. Actually, scientific journals are as closed as the Royal Society once was. The gatekeeper is "peer review": that is, papers are screened by experts, who judge if the experiments the manuscripts describe are credible.

But how, without having actually witnessed the experiments, can experts determine that? Reviewers have to trust the authors to have told the truth. Consequently, the most important part of a paper is the name at the top. If a well-known scientist submits a paper, it will probably be accepted; if an unknown submits one, it will probably be rejected. Science is still a closed club - partly to ensure that only accurate papers are published, but largely to prevent fraud.

But peer review carries dangers. First, it allows dunderheads to block unexpected ideas. Everybody within the scientific community knows of researchers such as Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for discovering gene jumping, a process by which scraps of DNA move about the genome. She was forced to publish her findings informally, in the annual reports of the Carnegie Institution, because she could not persuade peer reviewers to accept them.... Peer review was always an illusion, providing a deceptive imprimatur of objective truth.

Peer review is a total joke. It's little more than the scientific version of union thuggery.

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