As I was cleaning up my Inbox this evening and going through some old saved e-mails, I came across an article passed on to me by MK that was very worth passing on to all of you. It was sent to me last May, so it isn’t the most recent story off the presses, but the content is still worth a read.
Before linking to it I should qualify myself a bit…
I love science. (I know: some of you out there interpret sentences like that made by religious people to mean, in reality, “I want you to think I love science but really I hate science.” I don’t know how to convince you otherwise. We don’t have any plans for a Child #5 in the works, so to speak, but if we did and I named him/her “Science” would that help?)
I am one of those who believes that repetition of results is important. I believe that, in general, one strong and carefully controlled study that repeats the results of a previous study is worth far more than a large number of anecdotes and “personal stories” about how something “just works” (regardless of what a Kevin Trudeau may say in his profit machines books). I am skeptical of many (though not all) “alternative therapies” for some illnesses or conditions for the very reason that if they did, indeed, work with the accuracy and efficacy that their loudest proponents boast of, their results should be repeatable under reasonable controls.
I believe that a peer-reviewed paper should be given more of a benefit of doubt than an article published only on some fellow’s website (or, for that matter, something said in an infomercial). I believe that the practice of science is, generally, self-correcting if given enough time (which may, in some cases, need to be a great deal of time).
But I also believe in the fact that the practice of science is very much a human endeavor. And as such, it is very much subject to the passions and pitfalls of all other human endeavors. It is subject to groupthink, pride, the insidious but unavoidable tyranny of assumptions, and the Jeremiah 17:9 nature of the human heart.
And I think that these human faults are brought out more frequently and more intensely when the subject is a big one (evolution, human origins, global warming, et al.).
So, while I do love science, I do not worship in its cathedrals as Carl Sagan taught me to when I was a child. (As much as I adored St. Carl, I long ago learned to take his statue off the dashboard of my car.)
For instance, while I spoke very positively above of the role of peer-reviewed journals, I have learned that they are not quite what they are understood to be by the public. That is, they are not the completely fair-minded arbiters of quality and truthfulness that the uninitiated might think they are.
As products of the very human activity of the practice of science, they very much bear the fingerprints of an oh-so-faulty humanity.
Which leads me to my link, for which you have had to suffer an interminably drawn-out introduction (my apologies!). The article is “Peer Review, Publication in Top Journals, Scientific Consensus, and So Forth” by Robert Higgs. While I gather that the motivation for the article is global warming and climatology, the points Professor Higgs makes provide for an excellent commentary on science (and medicine) publications and “pronouncements” in general, and he speaks with the kind of authority that comes from a great deal of experience.
It isn’t an exciting read (though I found it thrilling!), but neither is it a long one, and it does an excellent job of putting science journals and publications in a perspective that the “layman” rarely gets to see. While I have reasons to take scientific proclamations with a grain of salt (or a pinch–perhaps a pound) in addition to those he mentions, those he chooses to elucidate are powerful enough to dispel a good bit of the illusion of “default trustworthiness” that surrounds the phrases “peer review” or “scientific consensus”. And I recommend it here for those who might find such an article educational.