Peer Review Takes Another Hit

But I view this recurring issue the same way I view revelations of juiced baseball players: Yeah, it happens, and it sullies the game, but not nearly enough to make me consider stop watching baseball. In other words, has the use of steroids fatally compromised the sport? No.

So there’s two ways to look at this NYT story about an ESP study getting published in a prominent journal:

1) Proof positive, as some well known climate scientists have asserted in the last year, that crap science can always find its way into a scientific journal.

2) Proof positive, as some climate science critics have asserted in the last year, that peer review is corrupted.

There is, of course, a third view, that is more nuanced (and which those in the first category would wholeheartedly agree):

Peer review is flawed but the best we’ve got

Then there is this tongue-in-cheek, sky-is-falling perspective.

But those of us who love baseball (or any sport) or politics the way we love science know that there’s always going to be cracks in the system that can be exploited. And when that happens, “sunlight,” as a U.S. Supreme Court justice once famously said, “is the best disinfectant.”

21 Responses to “Peer Review Takes Another Hit”

  1. Sashka says:

    You reaction is reasonable. Yet you are trivializing and pooh-pooh-ing the underlying problem which is clearly seen from the statement by the editor, Charles Judd:

    “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript,” he said, “and these are very trusted people.” All four decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though “there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.” But many experts say that is precisely the problem.

    Exactly! If this were a true science then this paper could never have been published. The fact that it is going to be published is not a mere oddity or curiosity. It’s a diagnosis. For this to be published crack in the system is not enough. A gaping hole could help, though.

  2. Michael Larkin says:

    Interesting. The mere fact that this paper was published can apparently be taken to mean that there is something amiss with peer review.
    If one has reviewed the evidence for psi (which takes a lot of time) and made up one’s mind on the basis of that (whichever conclusion one comes to), that’s one thing.
    However, I wonder how many expressing outrage have actually done that review? Or, have they started from the assumption that psi can’t exist, and therefore concluded the very appearance of a paper in a peer-reviewed journal constitutes evidence of problems with peer review? Conversely, how many feeling outrage at this outrage because they believe psi to be real, have started from that belief without doing the review either?
    If there is one book I would recommend, it’s “Randi’s prize” by Robert McLuhan. It’s a thoughtful exploration of the nature of belief and scepticism in this area, and amongst other things, examines the tactics employed by parapsychology sceptics, who are said rarely to be familiar with the literature, preferring to recycle opinions of those as ignorant as themselves of original sources, including the peer-reviewed ones. I’m sure McLuhan would also agree that some people accept because they want to believe and parrot conclusions without having critically examined the literature. He’s certainly not a gullible believer, or even a believer, really – as I intimated, more a thoughtful commentator.
    Personally, I’m a parapsychology agnostic (with pro-leanings), but I have reviewed a fair amount and, as people often do who have been bothered to do that, have found there are a number of well-designed and controlled studies which need to be treated seriously and can’t be dismissed by hand-waving (I haven’t examined this particular paper in detail, so won’t comment on it).
    On the other hand, I’m an AGW agnostic with sceptical leanings.It’s more difficult to come to grips with the literature because I lack great technical expertise. But then, IMO, most people on either side also lack that expertise. They seem to be going with their leaning either way, following the lead of whichever authority figure or expert that seems to agree with them.
    There is another way; namely to recognise one’s own particular biases, but not let them dominate, keeping an open mind. Humanity has a long, long, history of going with its biases, and relying on the “validation” of those with similar views. Doing so has on countless occasions delayed progress. In a thousand different ways, we’ve tried to suppress examination of things we’d rather not entertain, because if there were anything to them, our world view would be threatened. Sometimes things that were suppressed turned out to be false, and sometimes, true.
    In the end, truth will out, whichever way it goes. Suppression never works in the long run because believers don’t roll over and give in except in the face of conclusive evidence, neither of which currently applies to parapsychology (perhaps particularly psi) or AGW. What prevents the most rapid progress of our species is the fact we all have egos and need for the world to be a certain way lest we disintegrate. We’re all governed to a large extent by fear, and that breeds hostility. We’ll have grown up as a species when we stop fearing, but as that means we will also have stopped being egotistical, I’m not holding my breath for that time.

  3. Michael Larkin says:

    PS: McLuhan was recently, for a limited time, offering free electronic copies of his book to stimulate awareness of it. I don’t know if he still is, but if you’d like to check that out, see:


  4. Sashka says:

    Try to substitute psi in your argument with perpetuum mobile and see if it still makes sense.

  5. Michael Larkin says:

    I could equally well say substitute psi with quantum theory and make the opposite point. But I made the argument I made, and it was limited to what I said, no more and no less. Read the relevant literature and come back in, say six months, with a more informed comment.
    You might then believe psi hadn’t been proved, but one thing I’m quite certain you couldn’t validly say is that it’s a proposition on a par with perpetual motion. Your response tends to confirm what McLuhan has to say about uninformed, dismissive responses.

  6. Sashka says:

    Sorry, I am not going to debate it on (nonexistent) merits. I don’t particularly care what McLuhan (or anybody else for that matter) has to say about it. This thing contradicts too much of what we know. Ergo, it is on par with perpetuum mobile.

  7. kim says:


  8. laursaurus says:

    Not sure if this is OT, but a peer-reviewed analysis of the Climategate emails(paywall) was recently published in International Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Seems like something that you, Keith, might find interesting enough to blog about.

  9. Steven Sullivan says:

    That NYT article buried the lede until the end, where it noted that the so far no one’s been able to replicate Dr. Bem’s results.

  10. Steven Sullivan says:

    Btw, Keith, I was gonna mail you this (might still) but might as well post it on this thread — an interesting essay , describing fallout from the Sokal Hoax, where a physicist punked some prominent postmodernist ‘philosophers of science’.  Sokal predicted that trendy ‘interrogations’ of scientific method would eventually rebound onto the Left, and the adoption of such techniques by (mostly right-wing) AGW and evolution underminers has proven him right.


  11. HugeDifference says:

    Berube is a jackass and scientific illiterate and always has been.  His blogging for the past ten years has been festooned and surrounded by the kind of dialogue that insists the left is reality based and then goes on from there to insist that anything the left says is reality based.
    Take a look at his final paragraphs and ask yourself: why does Berube need to make some sort of deal with scientists? Does Berube really understand himself the science of global climate change or the science of the atom?  Does he want what he want for intellectual, scientific reasons, or is this just another stepping stone in his political battles?
    Why does he have to make a deal?
    Berube and his nonsense and his bullying and his demonizing of opponents is 95% of the reason that the Phil Jones and Michael Manns and Gavin Schmidts believe it’s okay to ignore FOI requests and call people that disagree deniers.
    Anyway, he’ll probably show up here, he’s the man of a million google alerts.

  12. kim says:

    Heh, the sun doesn’t revolve around humanity, but the climate does.

  13. Edim says:

    Peer review has been taking hits after hits for many years now. The fact that this is going to be published is a great sign of peer review standing up after so many hits.
    Someone upthread said that this contradicts too much of what we know and that is exactly the reason why it has been suppressed.

  14. Steven Sullivan says:

    heh, the climate doesn’t revolve around humanity but it sure can be affected by it.  And humanity in turn is affected by the climate.  Maybe that doesn’t matter to some people. heh.

  15. Steven Sullivan says:

    HugeDifference,  I thought Berube’s final ‘grafs were a spot-on portrait of the current state of play.  If you don’t understand why the ‘deal’ is offered, I find it hard to believe you actually read the essay.
    I also find the goal of the ‘deal’  to be wholly admirable: “Then perhaps we can get down to the business of how to develop safe, sustainable energy and other social practices that will keep the planet habitable.”

    Finally, that Berube is willing to admit he was wrong 15 years ago about the effects of the Sokal Hoax — he thought it would worsen the divide between science and the humanities — is also admirable.  He and we should be glad that the Sokal Hoax exposed a sort of glib, disingenuous intellectual wordplay that rots the discourse  — practiced then by segments of the academic Left agaist science generally, and practiced now by thinktank and political mouthpieces of the Right specifically against AGW and evolutionary biology.
    What’s it gonna take for the AGW and evolutionary science underminers to admit *they’re* wrong?

  16. HugeDifference says:

    I’m following the news right now, and truly upset about what seems to be the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords and the senseless killings of several others.
    I don’t know who did this or why, and I certainly take to heart Sarah Palin’s posters that quite literally put crosshairs on Gifford and others.
    In general I have come to be disgusted by all sorts of commentary and commentators on any side that seeks to demonize people that disagree with them.  It’s bullying, it’s not a valid argument, it’s gate keeping, it’s speech policing, and it’s not even effective, it mainly is polarizing and disenfranchising.
    Over the years I’ve read Berube at his blog, at LGM, at many of his blogs, and I have always found him to play at being the uber-intellectual, snarkier than thou and cozy up to many many people whose primary form of dialogue is a contempt for others masked by some claim to being intellectually superior.
    My take is that many scientists and engineers and many others of liberal stripes have real, serious, reasonable questions about global warming, and yet they are constantly called deniers, and hoaxers, and big oil shills, and right wingers, and all sorts of nastiness, if not directly by Berube, but by his friends and acquaintances on the internet.
    And all of that disgusts me.
    Berube is not responsible for the death this morning of a 9 year old, a judge, others, and the attempted assassination of a congressman, but Berube’s form of discourse and his tactics and even his snarkiness is no less responsible for the disgusting array of speech, the polarization of discourse as is Palin’s shoot them poster.
    If he believes he was wrong, he should say so. And leave it. Offering quid pro quo deals seems to say he some other agenda at hand.
    And I’m sure all of our thoughts and wishes go out to those in Tucson this morning.

  17. Eli Rabett says:

    It ain’t just the social sciences

  18. kim says:

    We shall soon see how much man affects the climate….and how much the sun does.   Heh.

  19. Steven Sullivan says:

    “My take is that many scientists and engineers and many others of liberal stripes have real, serious, reasonable questions about global warming, and yet they are constantly called deniers, and hoaxers, and big oil shills, and right wingers, and all sorts of nastiness, if not directly by Berube, but by his friends and acquaintances on the internet.”
    Now you’re shifting scope from what Berube actually wrote, to what vague ‘friends and acquaintances on the internet’ write? Seriously?
    As for takes, my take is that the number of bona-fide experts in climate-related fields who  question the basic AGW claims that ‘deniers’ seem to have a problem with (e.g., it’s getting warmer, we’re the ones driving it this time, and it’s something we need to be concerned about) is *miniscule*, compared the the number of experts who don’t.
    So until the ‘deniers’  — whether liberal, or overwhelmingly more common conservative  — get on board with at least that, I really have to question their motives as being something other than purely the spirit of honest inquiry, ‘interrogation’, or ‘auditing’ of science.

  20. Steven Sullivan says:

    Global warming occurred even as solar energy was decreasing, yet the sun is ‘soon’ going to show us how much man affects the climate.  Heh. You’re funny.


  21. kim says:

    Heh, google Livingston and Penn.  And the Eddy Minimum.

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