Peer Review

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Just as governments seek to justify everything they do—regardless of how violent or fascist—as being in the name of democracy or the greater good or for moral reasons, other dubious ideas have glommed onto the idea of portraying themselves as science in order to accumulate more than their fair share of respect. It seems that the cloak of science is just the spoonful of sugar the media needs to make any crackpot idea go down without a hiccup. Two areas in particular are swirling with boasts of provability and scientific evidence: intelligent design and denial of anthopogenic climate change. The second agenda, in particular, has been accused of not having support in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles. Seeing that acceptance without peer review was not easily forthcoming, the various support systems for this point-of-view have set about generating scientific consensus.

Given enough financial means and enough power, this isn’t so difficult to do; what is difficult is to build a preponderance of evidence. That’s where the media will be very helpful, as they are notoriously reluctant to take a position of any kind in any issue, regardless of how much less justifiable one side may be.[1] So, with issues of climate change, it suffices to say that a world coalition of scientists have issued a report that climate change is driven by human activity … however, other scientists disagree. Now, your average, hurried viewer is going to absorb the idea that everything’s up in the air, and the media will not have lied. They will merely have misrepresented as one side is represented by a concordance of scientists from all over the world, whereas the other is a much smaller group of individuals—primarily from the U.S. and primarily in the employ of or heavily funded by right-wing think-tanks or energy companies—who have formed their own, much smaller echo chamber.

It is in this way that peer review can be twisted to the purposes of any idea. Last Words on Saletan by Cosma Shalizi (Three-Toed Sloth) puts it quite well:

“A journal’s peer review is only as good as the peers it uses as reviewers. If everyone, or almost everyone, who referees for some journal is in the grip of the same mistake, then they will not catch it in papers they review, and the journal will propagate it. In fact, since journals usually recruit new referees from their published authors or people recommended by old referees, mistakes and delusions can become endemic and self-confirming in epistemic communities associated with particular journals. … Put simply, the problem is that any group of quack scholars with a shared delusion can put together a journal, dub each other peer reviewers, and go on their cheerful way by endorsing each others’ work for their journal.”

Naturally, our media should be aware of this and avoid it, if they were at all interested in the end result of a better-informed public regardless of the interests of their corporate masters. Even without assuming evil intent on the part of those that half-ass their jobs as journalists, it’s reprehensible how easily so many of them tend to get it wrong the first time, then only occasionally apologize for their stupefying incompetence some time later. It seems there is no way to get fired from some jobs these days.

To some degree, the reluctance to take sides can be regarded as a form of politeness, an especially liberal disease toward any other opinion. In a generous mood, one could toss journalists this bone and forgive them their transgressions as niceness rather than incompetence. It’s an almost purely liberal disease as the right wing (and not just in the U.S.) almost never reciprocates, happily steamrolling over other ideas in what for them is quite clearly an ideological war with only one clear winner.

This is such a big heap of partisan right-wing bullshit… (D-squared Digest) goes into more detail:

“Why are American liberals so damnably obsessed with extending intellectual charity to right wing hacks which is never reciprocated? It reaches parodic form in the case of those tiresome “centrists” […] They’re practically 50% of the way between Republicans and Democrats! Yeah, specifically they’re right-wing Democrats in non-election years and party line Republicans any time it might conceivably matter.”

The argument breaks down, however, when you consider to whom liberals are willing to extend this eternal olive branch. Seeing good qualities in political opponents extends only to those that espouse the more hard-line stance of those in power or in control of major purse-strings. That is, while the most extreme warhawk, poor-pillaging opponent is given the benefit of the doubt that he or she[2] truly believes their ideas will work for the greater good in the long run, Communist or labor opponents are attacked as simpletons, madmen or evildoers. So it’s clearly not “intellectual honesty [or] pure scholarly decency” that drives them. We must therefore assume that it’s compliance with a prevailing mindset within which they must make their living … and to which they are willing to sacrifice truth and honesty in the name of their careers and personal comfort. If you express honest ideas that don’t slam immigrants, terrorists, communists, labor unions or other such scum accordingly, you’ll find yourself looking for a job or looking the wrong way over the fence in Cuba. You have freedom of speech; but everybody knows you have to watch what you say.[3]

[1] Though only one example is given to illustrate the point, other examples abound. From more recent news, there’s (and this is paraphrasing from a CNN report): “The NIE says that Iran has not been working on nuclear weapons for four years … but President Bush says they have.” (in this case lending just as much weight to the baseless opinion of a known simpleton as to the consensus of more than a dozen notoriously infighting intelligence agencies.)
[2] Gotta give a shout-out to that bitch-on-wheels Ann Coulter here.
[3] Unless you’re just a mad, babbling blogger on the internets who thinks he’s safely ensconced in a foreign country and further protected by having a minute readership.