Field of Science

Priest, Altars and Peer Review

David Dobbs at Neuron Culture is complaining about NASA and peer review:
A NASA spokesperson has dismissed a major critique of the Science arsenic bug paper based not on the criticism's merits, but on its venue -- it appeared in a blog rather than a peer-reviewed journal. Apparently ideas are valid (or not) based on their content, or even the reputation of the author, but on where they're published.
I'm not known for my strong endorsement of the fetishism of peer review, but even so I think Dobbs is being somewhat unfair. My reading of history is that scientists have been plugging the peer-review mantra because they're tired of having to respond to ignorant assholes who appear on Oprah spouting nonsense. I mean, yes, you can address wacko claims about vaccines causing autism or the lack of global warming on their merits (they have none), but it gets tiresome to repeat. In any case, relatively few members of the public can follow the actual arguments, so it becomes an issue of who you believe. And that's a hard game to win, since saying "so-and-so doesn't know what they're talking about" sounds elitist even when it's true, and "elitism" (read: "meritocracy") is for some reason unpopular.

Focusing on peer review as a mechanism for establishing authority is convenient, because the public (thinks it) understands the mechanisms. You're not saying, "Believe me because I am a wise scientist," but "Believe the documented record." And since Jenny McCarthy doesn't publish in peer-reviewed journals, you can (try to) exclude her and other nuttos from the conversation.

So I think there are good reasons for a NASA spokesman, when speaking with a reporter, to dismiss blogs. Taking a critique in a blog seriously in public is only going to open the floodgates. I mean, there are a *lot* of blogs out there. That doesn't mean that the scientists involved aren't taking the a series critique by a serious scientist seriously just because the criticism appeared in a blog. I hope that they are, and we don't want to read too much into NASA's official statement.

All that said, I'm not sure focusing on peer-reviewed science has been helping very much. I mean, McCarthy still gets booked on Oprah anyway.


Edward said...

The word "blog" is valueless beyond identifying the type of web domicile an individual has chosen to call home. A blanket dismissal of "blogs" is as arbitrary as deciding one day to ignore people who live in houses with flat roofs.

The Lorax said...

Open the floodgates? The first amendment already did that and I think the blogosphere is much more readily available to the general (and expert) public than a buried letter to the editor published 2 months after the original publication.

The foolishness of the NASA spokesperson is that NASA announced with great fanfare their paper in press conference and press release neither of which are peer reviewed venues. They want it both ways, we can use nontraditional media and venues to announce the awesomeness of our work, but you cannot.

Peer review is great, but flawed, like all human activities. Like Oprah, like blogs (except mine of course which completely righteous)

GamesWithWords said...

@Lorax: I'm not sure I follow your argument. NASA's claim is merely that peer-reviewed papers and newsworthy, that which is not peer-reviewed is not. There's no contradiction here; the arsenic study was published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Similarly, the First Amendment gives you the right to speak, but not the right to be listened to. So again, the NASA position seems entirely consistent: they are not going to respond to something that comes from a non-peer-reviewed source.

David Dobbs said...

I'm the author of the post you discuss above. It's important that readers understand my beef with NASA. can understand the desire — however futile and doomed to failure — to fence out the Jenny McCarthys of the world from discussion of scientific findings and conclusions. But NASA's spokesperson was insisting on building a fence that kept out legitimate, informed comment from other scientists in the field. This doesn't come through in your post. It should be clear to readers who read my post at


David Dobbs

The Lorax said...

Sorry to be obtuse. My point is that science can be discussed, argued, promoted, etc in any and all venues and that is a good thing. I have never been happy with the 'peer reviewed' argument, because it is an argument from authority and when one creationism (or other pseudoscience) paper comes out in a 'peer reviewed' journal we are screwed.

I agree that it is tiring having to have the same arguments over and over again, but that does not mean we should take shortcuts to avoid the arguments. We should recruit new arguers to our side if we are tired.

Regardless, I find it disingenuous for those using non-peer reviewed venues to promote their peer reviewed work to then shut the door on non-peer reviewed venues to criticize their peer-reviewed work. We are talking about Larry Moran (author of a popular biochemistry text book), Rosemary Redfield (Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in bacteria), Carl Zimmer (wrote a book or two about something or other), among others.

Dr. Wolf-Simon's argument that all discussion relating to her work must occur via peer reviewed publications is bullshit at best (her quote "Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated"). Does she really expect a letter to the editor of Science to be sent out for formal review? or does she feel that once an article is published it is sacrosanct unless a different contradictory paper is published? By her logic cold fusion really occurred and we should still be intrigued by those studies from the late-80s.

Basically I agree with what David Dobbs said above.

GamesWithWords said...

@Dobbs Dude, I already linked to your post. Incidentally, there's something really wrong with Wired's commenting system; whenever I try to log in it just sits there. So I don't usually comment.

I'm not sure we disagree about how to characterize your argument. NASA was refusing to address criticism that came from outside peer-reviewed channels. That comes across as absurd in this case because this was a peer reviewing their work, and any serious scientist should listen carefully to serious criticism.

But I think we can distinguish between what scientists think about in the privacy of their own labs and what they want to be responsible for in a public forum. I don't think anybody wants a rule where every scientist must publicly address every comment that anyone makes, no matter how wacko.
(OK there are people who *do* want that rule, but they're wackos and I refuse to address their desires.)

So I think if we see the NASA spokesperson as acting in a public forum and abiding by established rules for public fora (fori?), the position seems more reasonable. Let's face it, any method we choose to filter comments is going to be imperfect.

But if NASA's policy is not to ever even *think* about ideas that they didn't read in Science or Nature ... that's a downright terrible policy and they deserve all the scorn that can be heaped their way. I would like to believe NASA scientists aren't that stupid.

Rosie Redfield said...

Ditto the comment about problems with commenting on Wired.