07 February 2008

Berlinski whines about peer review

Yesterday at Uncommonly Dense, GildDodgen posted a number of quotes from an interview with David Berlinski, the Disco 'Tute fellow and purported mathematician whose master calculation for assessing evolution quantitatively (revealed in that same interview) amounted to counting (or rather, pretending to count) the differences between cows and whales. The first quote given, concerning the self-critical nature of science, struck me as particularly wrong and important to correct:
The idea that science is a uniquely self-critical institution is of
course preposterous. Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone
else. They hate to be criticized… Look, these people are only
human, they hate criticism — me too. The idea that scientists are
absolutely eager to be beaten up is one of the myths put out by
scientists, and it works splendidly so they can avoid criticism.
One of the great strengths of science is the concept of peer review. In short, before any group's work can be included in the body of published scientific literature, it must be reviewed by other scientists in the field. This way, errors of methodology or interpretation can be addressed and reduced. It's not a perfect system, but it works pretty darn well: success is determined by well-reasoned argument and reproducible evidence.

Peer review is not kind to cdesign propoentsists, considering their total lack of a sound scientific argument (for ID or against evolution), and so it's natural that they'd lash out against it. Berlisnki's comment is so wrong, it hurts. I may be looking at peer review with all the naïve idealism of a kid who's never submitted a paper to a journal, but even I can see he's off his rocker. Look, let's say for a second that he's right, and scientists hate to be criticized. Even if that were the case, that doesn't change the nature of science as a system.

If you want to be published in the scientific literature, you have to get through peer-review. There's no way around it. Sure, you can make propaganda videos, pressure school districts, write books... there are ways to get your idea out there that bypass peer review. But that doesn't make it science.

And with that as a ground rule, scientists have to be highly self-critical. Sure, scientists are only human, and we like to be right. That doesn't mean we won't submit ourselves to criticism to make sure we're right, especially when the nature of the system means our success depends on it.

Not that your standard creationist would care about any of that, anyway. They're convinced that peer review must be flawed, since their criticisms of evolution never get any traction in the scientific community. Remember, you can't spell "crank" without "persecution complex." But it isn't enough to reject an idea, you have to be able to levy legitimate criticism against it. There isn't any "Darwinist conspiracy;" creationist claims have simply been consistently and conclusively demonstrated to be WRONG.


Ben Cox said...

Of course we hate to be proven wrong. It's only human to hate it when another person proves that he is more intelligent/well-read/adept/cautious/or just plain lucky than you are. It's equal parts jealousy and professional embarrassment at being on the official record as having vehemently held a position that is now regarded as complete rubbish.

But there's a big difference between hating to be wrong personally, and recognizing that the process of peer-review and falsification more generally are absolutely necessary to the pursuit of objective knowledge. If any scholar is worth his salt, then he will accept (often grudgingly) the refutation of his theories when confronted with compelling evidence. He won't like it, but he has no alternative. Otherwise, his theory would become a dogma - an assertion that is supported only by a single line of reasoning, and which is upheld only by the force of belief and not by evidence. That is the risk we run as humans: if we become too personally involved in our ideas, then we allow rejection of the idea to appear as a rejection of ourselves. But the history of science is full of brilliant men and women who are none the less remarkable for the ultimate incorrectness of their ideas.

I, for my part, abhor being wrong. And that's one of the major reasons I've been sitting on the manuscript of an article I wrote over two years ago instead of submitting it to peer-review. I'm so afraid that I might be wrong - that I might have missed something obvious that would refute my entire point - that I don't want to risk getting called on it by the greater academic community. This puts me in a rather dangerous position, actually, because if I let these ideas fester too long in my head without exposing them to the criticism of the academic marketplace of ideas, then I run the risk of becoming so personally invested in them that I won't be able to see the wisdom of a right-minded refutation if ever I do try to publish them.

As Krisna said to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, we must be intent on action itself, not the fruits of action: it is our duty to do research for the sake of research and do our best not to become too attached to the fruits of our labor, lest we be demoralized if they are subsequently disproved.

Sara said...

Or, worse than being wrong, you're right, but then someone else who wasn't afraid of maybe being wrong publishes first, then you're stuck reading your own ideas in someone else's wording, and that someone else gets the credit for it instead of you.


Ben Cox said...

Don't remind me! When I was at the AAR/SBL/ASOR conference in San Diego this November, there was a guy presenting his doctoral dissertation as a paper...and the argument was *identical* to my undergrad thesis. Not that I could have beaten him to it (nobody would publish my thesis as it currently stands), and I really should feel *validated* by the fact that the work I did as an undergrad was research that was worthy of a doctorate...but it still burns like the fire of a thousand suns.