Sunday, June 26, 2005

Scientism and Peer Review

Sometimes, scientists who declare a taboo will insist that only they are qualified to discuss and reach conclusions on the matters that they have made their own property; that only they are privy to the immense body of knowledge and subtlety of argument necessary fully to understand the complexities of the subject and to reach the ‘right’ conclusion. Outsiders, on the other hand, (especially non-scientists) are ill-informed, unable to think rationally or analytically, prone to mystical or crank ideas and are not privy to subtleties of analysis and inflections of argument that insiders have devoted long painful years to acquiring.
Yet the history of science abounds with examples that contradict this kind of elitist thinking: amateurs or non-scientists like the Wrights, Edison and even Charles Darwin; and outsiders like John Dalton (the self-taught meteorologist who revolutionised chemistry) and Fleischmann and Pons, the chemists who ‘rescued’ fusion physics.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the taboo reaction is that it tends to have a cumulative and permanent discriminatory effect: any idea that is ideologically suspect or counter to the current paradigm is permanently dismissed, and the very fact of its rejection forms the basis of its rejection on all future occasions. It is a little like the court of appeal rejecting the convicted man’s plea of innocence on the grounds that he must be guilty, or why else is he in jail? And why else did the police arrest him in the first place? This ‘erring on the side of caution’ means that in the long term the intellectual Devil’s Island where convicted concepts are sent becomes more and more crowded with taboo ideas, all denied to us, and with no possibility of reprieve.
How exactly do the guardians of the temple of knowledge impose their taboo? On the face of it, even the suggestion is implausible. Surely scientists, however prejudiced some individuals may happen to be, lack a mechanism to impose their world view on others in any systematic way? In practice, it is the easiest thing iii the world for those who manage the profession of science to declare a subject taboo. For any young scientist to progress in the profession, or even to be employed in science at all, he or she has to conduct research (or to teach what has already been learned from research to students). But to conduct research, the scientist must receive funds from some institu tion or organisation and getting such funds means placing proposals before a number of scientific colleagues who will evaluate them and decide whether or not to recommend that the financial and other necessary resources should be used in this way.
At this stage, the research scientist may be persuasive enough to secure funding or the institution enlightened enough to grant the resources, even for research which apparently flies in the face of orthodox scientific belief (although this happens less and less often today). But the researcher will then encounter the next obstacle which is usually insuperable. To continue to receive funds, he or she must publish their initial findings. A paper has to be submitted to one of a few professional journals where it will be reviewed by distinguished senior scientists from the field. Nominally, these reviewers are the researcher’s scientific peers. In reality they are likely to be academically superior. Even if not senior in rank they are superior in at least one important respect: they decide who gets published and who doesn’t. If they believe the research to be without merit (regardless of the results obtained) they will block its publication. And unless the researcher can get some findings published, he or she will find it impossible to get the grant renewed. Unless there are very unusual extenuating circumstances, non-publication is taken in science to mean experimental failure.
The net effect of this peer review system is that, at any given time, almost the entire research effort of the country is directed into subjects that are tacitly approved by those who comprise editorial review committees of the scientific press. Those review committees are, in turn, frequently drawn from among the more conservative scientists in the community and the system is self-perpetuating from supervisor to postgraduate to undergraduate. For this reason, virtually the only scientific research being conducted anywhere in Britain into taboo subjects is privately funded and is usually carried on in ‘skunk works’ — private laboratories with little or no resources — and its results are privately published usually in short-run paperback or photocopied editions that do not receive general circulation, or reach major libraries.

(Alternative Science: Challenging the
Myths of the Scientific Establishment
by Richard Milton :85-87)