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.

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