Creationism, Science and Peer Review
One of the most frequent statements about ‘creation science’ is that if it were really science, then it would be published in the mainstream journals.
Now consider the fact that Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick, were not peer reviewed.
Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick, were not peer reviewed
Peer review by anonymous unpaid reviewers is not a part of the Scientific Method.
Once upon a time the fate of a scientific paper was dependent on an Editor whose reputation depended on making sound decisions about what to publish. Modern science shifted responsibility from a single identifiable editor to an anonymous “committee”. What could possibly go wrong?
I was incredibly surprised to learn that Nature published some papers without peer review up until 1973. In fact, many of the most influential texts in the history of science were never put through the peer review process, including Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia Mathematica, Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 Nature paper on the structure of DNA.
A revolution in science happened without formal “peer review”. Who would have thought?
Crucially, journals without refereeing processes were not seen as inferior or less “scientific” than those that used referees. Few scientists thought that two anonymous readers would better judge a paper than, say, the great physicist Max Planck (who was on the editorial board of the prominent German journal Annalen der Physik). Scientists unaccustomed to refereeing did not see it as an obviously superior system.
In 1936, Albert Einstein—who was used to people like Planck making decisions about his papers without outside opinions—was incensed when the American journal Physical Review sent his submission to another physicist for evaluation. In a terse note to the editor, Einstein wrote:
“I see no reason to address the—in any case erroneous—comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.”
Watson and Crick’s paper might never have been published:
Nature’s former editor John Maddox was fond of saying that the groundbreaking 1953 DNA paper would never have made it past modern peer review because it was too speculative.
Typical of demands for peer review opponents of young-earth creationism is the physiologist Dr Richard Meiss of the Indiana University School of Medicine: ‘If the truths of creation science were as plainly manifest and as crashingly obvious as its proponents claim, surely they could convince at least a few outside reviewers of their validity on scientific merit alone.’
Moreover, additional kudos and prestige is attached to those articles published in the leading journals such as Nature and Science. Yet as Thomas Stossel, a Professor at Harvard Medical School, stated:
‘But unbeknownst to the media, the journals at the top got there because of herd behavior by researchers, not because they are better than lower-tier journals at vetting research quality. Here’s why: Researchers submit their best work to the top journals, which can therefore afford to maintain their prestige by rejecting, not publishing, many high quality papers. That’s brand creation—not science. Most of their editorial effort goes into deciding which submitted papers are sufficiently newsworthy. Anonymous peer review by jealous competitors has its merits, but it has a tendency to select for fashionable if relatively unoriginal and inoffensive papers … although these reports often do not substantively advance scientific knowledge, and many subsequently are invalidated.’
It should also be noted that peer review panels do not necessarily determine whether an article is published. The editors of the journal have the final say, and can often override the recommendations of peer reviewers.
In any case, many landmark scientific papers (like Watson’s and Crick’s on DNA6) were never subjected to peer review, and as David Shatz has pointed out, ‘many heavily cited papers, including some describing work which won a Nobel Prize, were originally rejected by peer review.’
[See the article for all the details]
Peer Review: Problems and Limitations
1. Peer review does not guarantee quality or correctness
2. Peer review does not prevent fraud
3. Peer review is rarely ever objective
4. Peer review can lead to bias
5. Peer review can lead to censorship
Indeed, such prejudice is openly admitted and defended by Karl Giberson (see Theistic Evolutionist Karl Giberson Unmasks Himself), editor of Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology:
‘If an editor chooses to publish a hostile review of a book, common politeness would suggest that the author ought to have some space to respond. But editors have a “higher calling” than common politeness, namely the editorial mission and guidelines that inform every decision as to what will be printed and what will be rejected. I have learned, since becoming the editor of Research News, common politeness is often in tension with editorial priorities … In my editorial judgment, the collection of ideas known as “scientific creationism” (which is not the same as intelligent design) lacks the credibility to justify publishing any submissions that we get from its adherents. I would go even further, in fact. The collection of creationist ideas (6,000 year old earth, no common ancestry, all the fossils laid down by Noah’s flood, Genesis creation account read literally, etc.) has been so thoroughly discredited by both scientific and religious scholarship that I think it is entirely appropriate for Research News to print material designed to move our readers away from this viewpoint. For example, we might publish a negative review of a book promoting scientific creationism … while refusing to allow the author a chance to respond. Is this an unfair bias? Or is it proper stewardship of limited editorial resources?’
This attitude converts the journals from a source of objective information into propaganda.
Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position.
Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare.
As far as the idea that science always gets it right, consider these ‘Grate Moments in Peer Review’ from Peer Review; Last Refuge of the (Uninformed) Troll:
In the fifth century BC, Empedocles theorized that one could see by virtue of rays emanating from one’s eyes. Falsifying this notion required no more than pointing out that one cannot see in a dark room. Despite this simple observation, his theory enjoyed substantial support for the next 1600 years.
Galileo died while under house arrest for supporting the notion that the earth orbited the sun. His was convicted in part on the basis of peer reviewed literature of the time insisting that the movement of the planets as observed from the earth could be explained by the planets simply reversing direction in orbit from time to time.
For nearly two thousand years, into the early 1800’s, when people fell ill, the peer reviewed literature confirmed that the best course of action was to let some blood out of them. The simple observation that death rates increased when this treatment was applied was dismissed out of hand on the premise that, if it was true, it would appear in medical journals. Sound familiar?