Sunday, July 23, 2017

On the Question of Peer Review

I’ve often wondered about what actual benefit there is to the peer review process - whether it’s in the study of History, or Medicine, or any of the sciences that overflow with theories, such as Archaeology or Evolution.  My own opinion is that it is often, if not always, forgotten that these are, in fact, theories, and not provable fact.

The reason I question the actual value of the process is because everybody has an axe to grind.  Everybody has their own preconceived ideas of why their particular theory should be accepted as fact, and one’s peers are no exception to this bias.

For example, if one has written an article that they want taken seriously on, say, the subject of evolution vs creation, they have it “peer reviewed”.  However, they only have it peer reviewed by evolutionists (or by scientists who are very familiar and “on board” with the conventionally held assertions of the evolutionist viewpoint).  If the article calls into question some minor detail of the current base of knowledge, but otherwise accepts (and reinforces) the accepted “facts” of evolution, then that article will be critiqued in an allegedly open-minded way.  However, if the article calls into question anything deemed to be the very essence of the theory, then it will not gain any traction and will, in fact, be laughed at and the author will never again be taken seriously.

Also, the question of who are one’s peers bears examination.  Suppose the article was written by a scientist who happens to be a Christian, and who has proposed ideas more consistent with Christian thought than with the prevailing scientific doctrine.  That article may be reviewed and discussed in Christian circles, but those discussions will never be considered to be a review by peers.  Why is that?  The scientist is also a Christian.  So, he has peers in the scientific world and also in the Christian world.  

The same thing happens in the realm of History when someone comes forth with an article that contradicts the conventional wisdom.  And in Medicine when someone investigates alternative medicine or calls into question the safety of the latest approved drug therapy.  

Why are these Christian scientists, or dissident historians, or skeptical doctors invariably marginalized and ridiculed?  Admittedly, these are usually cases of limited evidence - but those cases should not be quashed with impunity and never taken seriously enough to investigate how much validity they hold.  No, on the contrary, they should be rigorously researched to determine just what the truth is.  Anything less is scientifically irresponsible.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate function of peer review.  Namely to debunk bad research methods or outright propaganda.  To the degree that peer review accomplishes this, and I have no doubt that it does, then I salute the system for that.  However, I can’t help but wonder, given how tenaciously people tend to defend their own perspective, just how often views that may be legitimate get relegated to the scrap heap simply because it goes against the most widely held view.

How much of the peer review process is actual open-minded debate over the views presented, and how much of it is more like thought police censorship?

I’m not saying, necessarily, to do away with peer review entirely.  Simply to come up with a better, more intellectually honest alternative.  One way might be to have a point/counterpoint debate of the view being put forth.  I’m sure there are other alternatives also.b

Interestingly, just after I finished this post, I ran across a similar concern by none other than Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet.  That can be found here, which also has additional links to similar articles by respected sources.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Story Development: The Work Behind the Writing

You have a great idea.  You can see it playing out in your head - and after all, you’ve always been a great story teller.  It seems like the natural thing to do; maybe you should write a novel.  

Having a great idea, and knowing how to tell a story are both necessary ingredients to a good novel, but they’re not the only ones.  You also need to know how to get that idea onto paper in a logical, coherent, as well as entertaining, way.  The sad truth is, if you don’t have an understanding of story development, you’ll never be a writer.

What do I mean by story development?  Well, how does the story move along - from point A, to point B, and so on?  Simply being a good story teller doesn’t necessarily get you there.  Just like being a good writer doesn’t make you a good story teller.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem, they are different skills.

A good story teller, for one thing, doesn’t usually tell a novel-length story.  But more importantly, s/he has body language, facial expression, and perhaps natural charisma that captures the rapt attention of the listener.  As a writer, none of those things are on display.  We need to get the readers attention another way.  And that way is story development.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but what really prompted this was a blog post from one of my writer friends.  The first few points of this are short elaborations on her post.  If you want writing tips on a more regular basis, you should check out her blog, here.

These are some of the things you need to consider when writing a story.

1)  What is the premise?  Initially, this could be just a vague idea that needs thought to flesh out.  Don’t let the lack of detail deter you.  Write it down and come back to it.  If you don’t write it down, you WILL forget the idea - and it might be a good one.

2)  Creating and developing characters.  The creating part is pretty straightforward.  You simply populate your fictional world with characters you need to propel the story forward.  The hard part - the important part - is to develop them into real people.  Some stories are considered plot driven while others are thought of as character driven, but in my opinion, if you don’t care enough about your characters to make them real, nobody else will care either.

 I write a mini biography for each of my characters so I can get to know them.  I can’t tell other people about them if I don’t even know them.  There are also questionnaires you can fill out which would do the same thing.

3)  Research.  It’s been said that most writers write what they know, and I believe that’s true.  At least for one or two characters and perhaps the very general form of the story.  But there’s always something you don’t know.  For example, if you’re a doctor, you probably don’t know a lot about carpentry or fixing household appliances.  But chances are you know somebody who does, or at least you’ll have had a need to hire someone who does.  You should write what you know - but not only what you know.  You have to learn more.  Even if it’s just enough to get you through one section of the story.  It has to be believable because somebody out there reading your story will know if it’s not.

Items 1 and 2 need to be done at the beginning.  You can continue to develop characters to some degree as the story unfolds (people continue to grow, after all), but you really need to establish their baseline personalities early.  Item 3 is probably an ongoing thing throughout the writing process.

Okay, now it’s time to sit down and write.  Or is it?  Maybe you should outline your story.  Then again, maybe you shouldn’t.  And just what is an outline, anyway?  

To answer the second question first, an outline is pretty much whatever you decide it is.  Some writers wouldn’t even consider beginning a book if it wasn’t thoroughly outlined.  Step-by-step so as to not leave anything to chance.  Others think that’s like writing the book before you write the book.  More importantly, they might feel that a detailed outline inhibits their creativity and ability to be flexible.  They feel the proper approach is to write by discovery.  I know writers for whom their characters are so real that they are sometimes surprised by what the character says or does.  Now THAT’S writing by discovery.  

Most writers will probably fall somewhere in the middle of the two.  Maybe they outline the basic plot of the book, with specific plot-point milestones or other ideas that they want to make sure they don’t forget when the time comes to insert them into the story.  One thing most will probably outline (or at least take notes about while writing) is any loose ends that they need to wrap up by the end of the story.  It’s easy to lose track of these if you’re not careful.

So, how do you know whether or not you, personally, should outline, and to what degree of detail?  Unfortunately, you might only find out by trial and error.

I originally tried to be a seat-of-the-pants writer.  I wanted to write because it was fun, and didn’t want it to seem like work.  I didn’t want to inhibit my creativity.  I found out the hard way that, for me, that doesn’t work.  I have too many ideas that simply might not be good for the story.  I get distracted with these ideas and how I’m going to shoehorn them into the narrative - never really examining whether or not I even should.  

My current method (and this won’t work for everybody) is to write a scene (or maybe a chapter) that defines the premise or idea that I had for what might be a good story.  Then, with that small burst of creative energy spent, I’ll begin my character biographies and very loose outline about the plot development.  Only then do I begin what most people would call the actual writing.  And as I’m writing, I refer frequently to the outline to make sure I’m not being carried down rabbit trails.  

What follows is one procedure that I think is a good basic one to follow (after items 1, 2, and 3, above).  I did not create this, but unfortunately I can’t remember from where I got it to properly credit it.

1)  Introduce main character(s) and supporting characters.  Describe the setting(s) and situation as it initially presents.

2)   Introduce a problem or conflict.
      a)  Identify the problem
      b)  What do the characters think, say, and do to either deal with the problem, or that helped create the problem?
      c)  What are the peripheral effects of the problem?
      d)  Is there external tension exacerbating the problem?

3)  What are the characters doing to remedy the problem or conflict?

4)  Climax/Resolution. 
     a)   What happened ultimately?
     b)  How were the characters affected?
     c)  Moral (if applicable)
     d)  Epilogue

There are all sorts of variances to this and, ultimately, you’ll have to find what works best for you.  The important thing is that if something’s not working (like my writing on the fly), don’t be afraid to try a different approach.  Eventually you’ll find what works for you.