WARNING: This Column is not Peer-Reviewed

September 9, 2012

8 Sep (THE AUSTRALIAN) – Once upon a time, being peer-reviewed simply meant you had written something, usually a journal article, and some other people in your profession had read it and considered it fit for publication.   Not any more.  Now, being peer-reviewed apparently means being wise.  In recent years, the words “peer review” have taken on an extraordinary meaning.

It means you have access to some greater truth which the rest of us, the mere mortals who make up the mass of society, are unaware of and probably incapable of understanding.

The stamp “peer-reviewed” is being turned into a mark of approval, almost into a licence to speak, a licence to hold forth before the world and have your views taken seriously.

And if you haven’t been peer-reviewed? If your arguments haven’t gone through that rather stale academic process of getting a nod of approval from a tiny circle of bespectacled professors? Then apparently you don’t know what you’re talking about and should shut up.

The makeover of peer review has been remarkable.

Not long ago, the only people who knew or cared what peer review involved were academic researchers, men of medicine and white-coat wearers in the sphere of science, who were understandably keen to have their papers OK’d by a handful of their peers so that they might be published and discussed by others. Outside of the ivory towers, peer review meant little, if anything, to Joe Public.

Now, thanks largely to climate-change activists who treat peer-reviewed documents about the environment in the same way early Christians treated the gospels, peer review is all the rage.

Radical greens march behind banners declaring, “We are armed only with peer-reviewed science”.  At the big left-wing demo, the Rally to Restore Sanity in the US in 2010, one of the placards read: “What do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it?  After peer review.”

That’s nowhere near as catchy as the chants of earlier youthful agitators, who demanded change “NOW”, but it does capture how bizarrely important the process of peer review has become outside of academe.

More and more campaigners and commentators now insist that only ideas that have been peer-reviewed should be taken seriously. Everything else is bunkum, or possibly charlatanism.

Last week in The Guardian newspaper, a green campaigner described peer review as a “kitemark of quality assurance”, implying that any claims about the climate or mankind’s future that haven’t been peer-reviewed have no quality.

She suggested that even newspapers articles written by everyday journalists should be subjected to something akin to peer review.

There should be a “system of certification”, she said, where “teams of academics” would award an approving kitemark to articles that are “accurate (and that) use reliable sources and peer-reviewed studies”.

Funnily enough, a few hundred years ago we had just that kind of system in the British media. It was called the licensing of the press, where only those writers whose ideas met with the approval of the king or queen and their tyrannical court would be permitted to publish, while all the rest would be branded heretics.

Fittingly, The Guardian article calling for peer review to be used in a similar way today, as a way of branding certain published ideas Good and others Bad, was headlined “Don’t give climate change heretics an easy ride”.

In Australia, public intellectual Robert Manne says that when it comes to climate change, only “leading peer-reviewed scientific journals” should be treated seriously. A “rational citizen has little alternative but to accept the consensual core position of climate scientists”, he says.

“Discussion of this point should long ago have ended.”

Here we can clearly see the cultural snobbery and intellectual protectionism of the cheerleaders of peer review. Manne is effectively telling the little people to shut up and accept the Truth as revealed by their betters in academe.

What these modern-day licensers of acceptable thought refuse to recognise is that climate change, in terms of how it is framed by the green lobby, is not simply a scientific issue. It is a profoundly political one, touching on everything from economic growth to development in the Third World, from how we travel to what kind of expectations we have for our children.

Under the guise of promoting “correct science” and slamming “bad science”, the priestly peer-review lobby is actually enforcing an ideological world view, using the tags “peer reviewed” and “non peer-reviewed” to distinguish between those who are politically on side and those who remain stubbornly heretical.

To see how much the process of peer review has become about raising the drawbridge on political troublemakers, consider how the British writers Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson responded to criticisms of their book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

That book has become a massive talking point in Britain in recent years and has attracted some fierce criticism. Somewhat stung by this, Pickett and Wilkinson said in 2010 that from now on they would discuss their ideas only with those who had been peer-reviewed. “All future debate should take place in peer-reviewed publications”, they decreed.

In one fell swoop they shut out vast numbers of people – journalists, students, the man at the bus stop who has a lot of thoughts about the equality issue – from any serious discussion of their book. Here, “peer-reviewed” is clearly code for “respectable”, for those well-educated folk who can be trusted to think in an intelligent and nuanced way.

The extraordinary thing about the liberal intelligentsia’s wide-eyed faith in peer review is that this academic process is actually massively open to corruption.

Much peer review involves little more than well-connected academics getting people they know or mates who owe them a favour to sign off on their latest bit of work. That is why the peer-reviewed reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have included so many factual inaccuracies and so much eco-claptrap.

In essence, huge swaths of the cultural elite are using peer review as a kind of intellectual licence, with those lucky enough to receive this stamp being treated seriously and everyone else being branded a dangerous outsider. For all the scientific pretensions of this process, it is most reminiscent of those old Vatican Councils that would get together every few years to determine what the Truth is and how it might be communicated to the pig-ignorant public.

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