Peer review

I’ve stumbled across yet another “ClimateGate” article (by way of James Delingpole), this one going right for the jugular of science: peer review. The author is journalist Patrick Courrielche, who I hadn’t come across until now.

Courrielche argues that peer review is kaput and is being replaced by what he calls “peer-to-peer review”, an idea that brings to mind community efforts like Wikipedia. This has apparently been catalysed by “ClimateGate”, an event portrayed by the denialist community as something akin to the Coming of the Messiah.

Courrielche asserts that peer review is a old system of control imposed by the “gatekeepers” of the “establishment”, while peer-to-peer review is a new system gifted to us by the “undermedia”. Courrielche has very little time for nuance in the construction of this moralistic dichotomy, and clearly very little idea why peer review exists in the first place.

It should be noted from the start (and many an academic will agree) that peer review is a flawed system. It’s well known that worthwhile papers are rejected from reputable journals from time to time, while the less reputable journals have the opposite problem. Nevertheless, there is a widely-recognised need for at least some form of review system to find any weaknesses in papers before publication. It seems obvious that the people best placed to review any given piece of work are those working in the same field. Peer review acts both as a filter and a means of providing feedback (a sort of last-minute collaborative effort). The reviewers are not some sort of closed secret society bent on stamping their authority on science, as Courrielche seems to imply. Anyone working in the field can be invited by one relevant journal or another to review a paper, and it’s in a journal’s best interests to select the best qualified reviewers.

Courrielche sticks the word “review” on the end of “peer-to-peer” so that it can appear to fulfill this function. The premise seems to be that hordes of laypeople are just as good, if not better, at reviewing a given work than those who work in the relevant field. This is really just thinly-veiled anti-intellectualism. How can a layperson possibly know whether the author of a technical paper has used the appropriate statistical or methodological techniques, or considered previous empirical/theoretical results, or made appropriate conclusions?

That’s why papers are peer-reviewed. Reputable journals get their reputation from the high quality (i.e. usefulness and scientific rigour) of the work presented therein, as determined by experts in the field. Barring the very occasional lapse of judgment, the flat earth society, the intelligent design movement, the climate change denialists, and any number of other weird and wonderful parties are prevented from publishing their dogma in Science, Nature and other leading journals. There’s no rule forbidding such publication; that’s just what happens when you apply consistent standards in the persuit of knowledge. Ideologues are frequently given an easy ride in politics, and it clearly offends them that science is not so forgiving.

However, Courrielche appears to be more interested in describing how the “undermedia” is up against some sort of vast government-sponsored conspiracy to hide the truth. His tone is one of rebellion, of exposing the information to the media, and doing battle with dark forces trying to prevent its disclosure. Even if such a paranoid fantasy were true, it has nothing to do with peer review. Peer review is not a means of quarantining information from the public, but simply a way of deciding the credibility of that information. In reality, the information is already out there, and in fact it’s always been out there (just not necessarily in the mass media). The problem is not the lack of information, but the prevalence of disinformation. We are all free to ignore the information vetted by the peer review system, but we don’t because it’s intrinsically more trustworthy than anything else we have.

Courrielche makes mention of the “connectedness” of the climate scientists, as if mere scientific collaboration is to be regarded with deep suspicion. Would he prefer that scientists work in isolation, without communicating? This is quite blatantly hypocritical, because his peer-to-peer review system is based on connectedness.

Well, sort of. I also suspect that most of the many and varied denialist memes floating around have not resulted from some sort of collective intelligence of the masses, but from a few undeserving individuals exalted as high priests by certain ideologically-driven journalists. There is nothing “peer-to-peer” about that at all.

From my point of view, what Courrielche describes as the “fierce scrutiny of the peer-to-peer network” is more like ignorant nitpicking and groupthink. There are no standards for rigour or even plausibility in the many of the discussions that occur in the comments sections of blog sites. Free speech is often held sacrosanct, but free speech is not science.

The denialists are up against much more than a government conspiracy. They’re up against reality itself.