Re: [asa] Scientific stupidities part 1

From: Gregory Arago <>
Date: Fri Mar 27 2009 - 04:11:12 EDT

Glenn wrote:
"I think it is utterly stupid to believe that peer review is worth more than a bucket of warm spit. It is, in my opinion nothing but a political tool in the hands of scientific partisans. Only years after the debate dies down does the rebel scientist get honoured, usually after his death when it doesn't really matter to him, at least under normal conditions."
Well, this is of course a gross exaggeration. A 'warm bucket of spit' is not very flattering to 'the scientific community,' which often 'advances' its 'sciences' through publications of one form or another, whether they be peer reviewed or not.
Do you realize Glenn, that this topic is actually one that falls into the category of 'science studies' and more specifically into the academic branch called 'sociology of science,' which deals with, among other things, the peer review process, scientific citation indexes, networks of researchers, invisible colleges, mobility of scientists, the status of science in society (e.g. do I want my child to become a scientist or rather a businesswoman or doctor or lawyer or engineer or computer programmer, etc.) and the meaning of science to society, i.e. does anything science says really matter to me and my everyday life?
I would highly doubt that Randy has done much research into the sociology of science (and most scientists look at SoS very negatively, since it tends to demystify their activities) to verify his high trust in 'peer review.' I note just one example to counter his 'faith' in peer review: Dembski's book (whether I personally dislike them or not) have sold very well to a general public, though yes, addmittedly, the sales have been predominantly to evangelical American Christians, as he himself admits. One could classify his work as 'public understanding of science' and not as 'pure science,' the latter label which I doubt anyone here would apply to his work. He avoided peer review as not the best channel to promote his ideas and it was a smart idea to do that as they wouldn't have been accepted there.
The point I think Glenn is raising (not about intelligent design) is that sometimes the line between current 'science' and potential 'science' is blurred moreso than those who are staunch defenders of peer review (i.e. 'group think' as Glenn called it) would be willing to admit. Great science can and does occur without peer review, perhaps for a simple enough reason as that the person doesn't want to submit to a panel of colleagues who he or she *knows* will not accept the new scientific proposal. His idea or contribution is far beyond their capacity to understand (though this is of course the rare, rather than the common case).
I can add to Glenn's examples two others: books that get turned down by multiple publishers, only to finally be accepted by a brave editor, which then ultimately turn out to be highly successful (e.g. Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead). With fiction of course this is something other than with 'science,' yet in scholarly work this happens too. A closer example to Glenn's point is books that are far ahead of their time and thus not understood by many people when they are first published. For example, Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan's editor told him 'in dismay' that "seventy-five per cent of your material is new. A successful book cannot venture to be more than ten per cent new." (NY: Signet, 1964: 20-21) The book was way ahead of its time and the average person who simply 'didn't get it' in the 60s or 70s would be much better equipped today to understand it.
It seems to me that peer review is kinda like this editor sometimes, restricting the 'new' to no more than ten percent, because one has to perpetuate the 'normal science' that most scientists in any sphere are practising, which gives them their positions, their jobs and their salaries, their livelihood. Change the 'paradigm' or 'heuristic' too much or too quickly and a bunch of scientists and scholars will find themselves out of jobs or having to 're-skill' or to adapt their knowledge to a new academic situation. Most of the 'normal scientists' (according to Lakatos, this is a large percent!) simply don't want to do it. So, if I agree with Glenn on one point, it is that indeed there is (or can be) a sense of complacency that settles in and which peer review conservatively defends.
'Cadres' does seem to be an appropriate term in some cases to describe committees if the peer reviewers are conservative 'normal scientists' who couldn't see a 'legitimate new possibility' if it stared them in the face. While the 'system of science' that Randy is uplifting *should* be able to adjust itself to involve just enough radical thinkers on peer review committees that they alone might catch potentially significant ideas, there is institutional pressure against accepting these 'wild ones' as welcome peers. The problem is thus, as Glenn aludes to, there does seem to be a collectivistic ideology running through peer review that is just as exclusivistic to some as it is inclusivistic to others.
This is why David Opderbeck accussed this ASA list of 'myopia' recently and why only one small attempt to reflect upon what he meant by this was given in response to my asking about it. Others noted that there has become some conventionality on the ASA list where certain perspectives are either disallowed or simply not addressed (I can remember a few threads 'ending' in the past couple of years, where no one could or would answer the questions or even say openly, 'we don't know'). I can certainly tell you one person who seems to have seen this is Mike Gene, who is an Theistic-IDist-Evolutionary-Scientist (TIDES), which I think is a combination in a single person that most people on this list (would) find very difficult to deal with. He doesn't seem to wish to dialogue here, one might wonder: why not? Can you face the waves that he is offering?
If someone is trying to get tenure or trying to be accepted by his or her peers or to climb a higher educational system's ladder of position, then one is better advised to play by 'the rules of the game' than to challenge the status quo. Of course, this situation differs across disciplines and fields as well, as in, for example, some fields when a person's best works are published at a young age, while in others maturity and breadth of experience sees major works published at an older age. Perhaps there simply needs to be space created in which uncomfortable topics or ideas, or cutting-edge possibilities, or even radical suggestions can be at made available for consideration; if a peer review committee would turn it down, there might be another, better route for this 'potential science' to take to its eventual acceptance.
Glenn has rigged the discussion, of course, with retrodiction. He is giving example of ideas now accepted (by the scientific community, which at other times he spurns, as in peer review), which we now *know* to be accurate or true (POFE), which had to go through tough times and rejections in order to get there. All one can say is 'well, that's science!' Science is imperfect as human beings are imperfect, and this nonsense of hiding behind 'science is objective' or 'peer review is almost perfect' is already an eclipsed ideology, not itself a simple expression of rational thought. But I doubt many people here would suggest otherwise; ASA scientists and scholars do not accept peer review as equivalent to counsels of elders or 'the scientific community' as a new age magisterium. Perhaps Glenn would beg to differ with this...?
Cordially, and controversially,
p.s. one could easily title a thread religious stupidities or philosophical stupidities or social stupidities or cultural stupidities or even natural stupidities too! :) __________________________________________________________________ Instant Messaging, free SMS, sharing photos and more... Try the new Yahoo! Canada Messenger at

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Received on Fri Mar 27 04:12:15 2009

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