The Worship of Peer Review

I’ve written about peer review and some of the issues associated with it before. However, it has been brought home to me recently that peer review is a significant issue in both evolutionist and creationist camps. This article will break down some of the issues involved and how much of science idolizes peer review to the point of absurdity. For those reading, I will be gently critiquing some creationist organizations in this paper.  Please do not take that as me saying they are in any way bad, or wrong. I link to all of the organizations I will be critiquing and trust them. This is a minor issue which I’m simply pointing out.

I want to emphasize up front, I am not critiquing the idea behind peer review. In fact, the idea is great. When I write extensive research articles to be published anywhere other than here, I deliberately ask people I trust to review them.  The idea of a review is an excellent idea…in a perfect world. We do not live in a perfect world. As such, peer review has been turned into some things it was never intended to be.

I find it interesting that peer review has only recently come into vogue. The ideas of Copernicus, Newton, Boyle and so on were not peer reviewed. They wrote books and presented papers, which their colleagues then commented on. There was nothing preventing them from publishing a new idea and calling it scientific. Peer review in those days involved public responses to ideas, or private exchanges of letters. The system produced some cranks, but then so has the modern system, but it did not hinder the spread of science. In fact, I’d argue that it enhanced it because people were free to express and publish new ideas in a scientific manner and allow them to stand or fall on their merits.

Secular peer review has turned into an absolute monster that does more to gum up the works than it does to advance good science. For example, I recently read an article discussing how one of the premier peer-reviewed journals refused to even consider a paper from a team of scientists who had attempted to replicate an article published in that journal a few years previously.  There have been other, more egregious examples which have come out over the years. Sometimes reviewers have left massively negative comments on a paper, ensuring it did not publish, then turned around and published the same paper in a more prestigious journal. Others have been less drastic and simply plagiarized sections from papers assigned to them to peer review.

However, the key problem with peer review is, there is no way around it. Peer review is worshipped as the gold standard in science.  If a scientist publishes something that is not in a peer-reviewed journal, no matter how scientific his idea, no matter how well formulated his logic, it is ignored.  This would not be a huge issue if the peer-reviewed journals played fair. But they don’t.

What tends to happen in peer-reviewed science is a group of scientists becomes well-known in their field, either from genuine ability or from knowing the right people. These people are then sought out as peer-reviewers for anything in their field. This circle generally includes several hundred people in a field, who all generally agree on a topic.  When a scientist, generally a younger one, proposes an idea which upsets the peer-reviewers paradigm, the science stops mattering. The only thing that matters is protecting the sacred cow. In effect, the reviewers serve as gatekeepers to the exclusive club, including professorships at prestigious schools, grants, and tenure.  None of those things are available to someone who bucks the sacred cow, whatever that might be.  Thus until the old guard retires or dies off, the sacred cow remains, no matter how unscientific or broken it appears to be.

Because the vast majority of creation scientists come out of this secular system, they bring some of its ideas with them. While, as Christians, issues like plagiarism are essentially unheard of, the gate keeping system is still in play to an extent. Creation Ministries International recently illustrated this mentality. They wrote an article debunking excuses people give them not to have CMI come to their churches. In general, it is an excellent article. However, when it comes to the statement “we have people in our church who can handle this” CMI muffs it just a little.  In responding to the statement, they ask “Is their position peer reviewed…” Why should this matter? If the person in church X is teaching the Bible faithfully and accurately representing science, why should they need to submit to peer review, especially as the system is so fundamentally flawed? I get what CMI is driving at, because there are a lot of fringe individuals who introduce all manner of strange ideas into creation science.  However, by making peer review the arbiter, people like my friend from Greg from GreenSlug, or Mrs. Cheri Fields, or any number of other small grassroots ministries shouldn’t be doing creation ministry. I’m sorry, that’s not correct.  These people are consistent with both the Bible and science but their work is not peer-reviewed.  Nor should it need to be to minister in their own church or to other churches.

Peer review is an excellent idea in theory but, even in creation science, it is given too high a place.  To the evolutionist, having a peer-reviewed is paramount. For creationists, the worship of peer review is not a factor, nor are some of the issues, but the heavy emphasis on peer review to the exclusion of all else is a mistake that creation ministries would be wise not to make. Just because an idea is not peer-reviewed does not mean it is not scientific, anymore than peer review makes an idea scientific.  After all, evolution has been published in thousands of peer-reviewed journals and it is about as scientific as the flat earth.

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