Peer Review

Knatz.com / Teaching / Thinking Tools / Science /
@ K. 2006 01 10
Mission: to tickle a flaw in the epistemology of peer review

Stones to step off from:

When Newton perceived not an apple falling toward earth, but complementarily, the earth rising toward the apple, how many peers did he have?

When Galileo was willing to admit, after seeing Jupiter’s satellites, that the earth was not the one and only cosmic center, the only body with a satellite, how many peers did he have?

When Einstein’s teacher agitated to prevent the publication of Einstein’s 1905 paper, how reliable was peer review?

When Einstein talked Klein out of publishing his paper on dimensions beyond four, how reliable was peer review?

When MIT, with millions in funds for hot fusion research, falsified data about cold fusion research, how reliable was any part of the science community?


I champion science as the best yet epistemology but I absolutely refuse to pretend it’s flawless. Over the past decade a couple of flaws that I perceive in science have been mentioned at Kdot.gif, not necessarily in this my Thinking Tools section. Today though is I believe the first time I’m girding myself to present a flaw as the main subject of a module. First I’ll draft something, post it, develop it at my leisure, and also hope to return to gather links to other K.-mentions of flaws: brother and sister flaws, son and daughter flaws …


Peer review is a cornerstone of science publication. Before a journal publishes a paper at least a couple of fellow scientists are supposed to review and approve the paper: the theory, the experiment, the data … the ideas. The same applies in other disciplines from English to medicine.

Bucky taught us that drawing a square (or a triangle, or any polygon) necessarily draws a companion square. Join four one foot lines at right angles and you’ve drawn a square with an area of one square foot: complementarily, you’ve also drawn a square with an area of all of planar space minus one square foot. The square includes four right angles, equals, 90 degrees each; but also excludes four complementary angles, equals, 270 degrees each. One can’t do only one thing. Shadows follow us, new shadows created with every move.

2006 01 13

I must add another angle to the previous (and must further develop it in an independent module): The eye helps the mind to see, that’s its function. But other organs, instruments, are multi-functional. The mouth does a series of things: stuff goes in, other stuff can come out. Parts of the mouth chew, parts of the mouth taste. Mouths in some creatures can help send signals, humans issuing streams of speech … A gun can wound or kill the lion or the cannibal about to eat you, the mugger about to rob or rape you; or the gun, the same gun, can injure or kill your child, put a hole in your husband, blow your own brains out. In other words, the same institution that can see your paper published can also see your paper not published. The supervisor who recommends you simultaneously does not not-recommend you: and the same supervisor can blackball you: all different faces of the same complex beast.

Peer review can launch an important idea with a solid foundation, supported; it can also delay an idea, repress an idea, kill an idea.

Peer review helped launch Darwin’s evolution. But note how few peers Darwin had. (Peer Wallace put his own evolution aside for the sake of courtesy to a senior.) And meantime, non-peers sniped at it, misunderstood it, misrepresented it; but not in the peer reviews: peers-manqué discussed it there.

The same court that can return the snatched purse to the traumatized woman can prevent evidence that the court house stands on land still rightly belonging to the Seneca from ever getting examined.

Western history over much of the past millennium has emphasized the sharing of power. King John had to sign the Magna Carter, conceding a few barons to be the king’s peers. Once upon a previous time that had been conceded without fuss. Western monotheism presents a central authority, God: but the opening of the Jewish Bible presents him as chairman of a committee as it were; not only one god, but only one chairman of the gods: the king god. But don’t forget the baron gods: forget the little gods, the powerless gods, but not the baron gods! The barons in the time of King John insisted that they were the king’s peers. (Simultaneously, in shadow, they excluded all other men (women, and children) from being their peers.

Fuss about peers is political jockeying over who holds how many of the reins of power: who steers whom.

American democracy claims all citizens to be peers: then goes to great lengths of fuss and re-fuss legislating who’s a citizen: and who isn’t!
Include; exclude. (Don’t for a second think that I’m about to argue that everyone is equal. On the contrary I am about to poke fun at the idea that any population necessarily has three persons who can understand a given idea!) (There are some ideas we’d be lucky if there were two.) (There are some ideas we’re damn lucky if there are none!)

Don’t forget for one second that your author here is the guy who in 1970 offered to establish a public data base to which anyone could publish without peer approval. The institution would have restricted nothing, censored nothing, recommended nothing (other than its own existence), and certified nothing. Let ideas come forth and fight it out in public, remove all political blocks to evolution.

By 1970 I was all but convinced that there was no one at my university capable of understanding my ideas. If there was, I had no access to them. If there was, and I had access to them, they were pretending not to understand, not accurately or honestly processing a thing I said: and I was only talking about Shakespeare! not about the character of the cosmos.

You have no peers.
Sebring attorney to pk

Has anyone in the science peerage yet understood a single point in my theory of Macroinformation?
Has anyone actually read it? How carefully?

If I don’t have any peers in science or in English, do I have any in the general public?

I mentioned “cold fusion” above. I know little about it. It’s not a current issue. But last night I watched a DVD documentary on the subject: and whooped when I learned that a couple of early cold fusion papers bypassed the science journals and announced directly to the common press!

But surely everyone understands that ordinary publishing also publishes only what it selects. It has to be predicted as salable, it can’t offend the sponsors … some paying readership has to be imagined for it.

The tendency for scientists to engage in internecine conflict is inversely proportional to the availability of data.
web


2006 01 13

Not all interests want all things published. Forget for a moment what you believe of the Bible and follow the story: When God wants to kill every creature on earth except for Noah and his family and a new Adam and Eve for each other species, he doesn’t publish his intention in the Murdoch Gazette: he tells Noah: and only Noah. When God decides to rain fire and brimstone onto Sodom and Gomorrah, he doesn’t publish it in the Gomorrah Gazette. He scurries Lot and family to the side. When the US wanted to obliterate Hiroshima, it didn’t announce the hour in the Tokyo Times.

I sure love the gag in Men in Black where when the veteran alien monitor when he wants accurate news about aliens ignores the Times and buys up the tabloids!

If you can design a better mouse trap and also care about supporting yourself and your family, you patent your design: you put your seal on it, so it can’t be stolen. But some ideas are too important not to be utterly and freely shared. Unfortunately for some innovators, unfortunately for all, what someone gives away on Monday can be repressed by the Times, and then patented by thieves on Tuesday.


I mount and edit this online. It will be a while before it’s finished.


Though I’ll now anticipate at least one additional flaw in our scientific epistemology I don’t have to reflect or search to think of:

Science depends on experiments being duplicable. That’s important. Science must be public. Private science is one thing, public science another.

So it’s “good”; and “bad.”

pk has been into science increasingly since 1979: with that year’s publication of Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature, but pk has been into science fiction (and this and that theology) far longer. Thus, I mix bags. Allow me. There’s reason.

If you rub your comb on your sweater or your feet on the carpet, then touch your comb or your finger to a second party, expect a spark to jump. That experiment is duplicable.
But what if you’ve been abducted by aliens in a flying saucer? What if God, or Buddha, or Hiawatha came to you in a vision? Told you to sit under a tree? told you to build an ark?
Can that experience be duplicated? Can your experience be made public? so the public will believe it?

Science can’t claim authority with private, non-replicable things. There are some things science has no responsibility to believe. Simultaneously, it has no responsibility to deny.

Notice: I refer to science there as though it were an entity; not a collection of processes: a flaw natural to human beans, and, so long as I point out my flaw, I apologize no further for it.

If aliens abduct you, and you get their phone number, make a return appointment, and bring reporters with cameras, tape recorders, and so forth to the meeting, and the aliens show up, and pose, and allow the recordings … then you have a public experience: and science becomes relevant.

If your experience remains private, if your experiment, your experience, is not duplicable, then public science is irrelevant. Maybe you’re hallucinating; maybe not.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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