Political Economist Robert Higgs on Peer Reviews and Scientific Consensus

How many times in the past year as global warming has become a headline issue have you heard a liberal media member or Hollywood elite talk about a consensus of peer reviewed scientists?

So much so that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one, correct?

As an example, pop singer Sheryl Crow during her recent Stop Global Warming College tour would toss the term "peer-reviewed science" around to her audience like a frisbee, as if she had any idea what it actually meant.

With that in mind, a Senior Fellow in Political Economy for the Independent Institute, Dr. Robert Higgs, published an article Monday that should be required reading for folks like soon-to-be-Dr. Al Gore and his followers (emphasis added throughout):

I have served as a peer reviewer for more than thirty professional journals and as a reviewer of research proposals for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and a number of large private foundations. I was the principal investigator of a major NSF-funded research project in the field of demography. So, I think I know something about how the system works.

It does not work as outsiders seem to think.

Tell us more, Doctor:

Peer review, on which lay people place great weight, varies from important, where the editors and the referees are competent and responsible, to a complete farce, where they are not. As a rule, not surprisingly, the process operates somewhere in the middle, being more than a joke but less than the nearly flawless system of Olympian scrutiny that outsiders imagine it to be. Any journal editor who desires, for whatever reason, to knock down a submission can easily do so by choosing referees he knows full well will knock it down; likewise, he can easily obtain favorable referee reports. As I have always counseled young people whose work was rejected, seemingly on improper or insufficient grounds, the system is a crap shoot. Personal vendettas, ideological conflicts, professional jealousies, methodological disagreements, sheer self-promotion and a great deal of plain incompetence and irresponsibility are no strangers to the scientific world; indeed, that world is rife with these all-too-human attributes. In no event can peer review ensure that research is correct in its procedures or its conclusions.

As for the other buzzword folks like Gore, Crow, and Laurie David like to throw around:

At any given time, consensus may exist about all sorts of matters in a particular science. In retrospect, however, that consensus is often seen to have been mistaken. As recently as the mid-1970s, for example, a scientific consensus existed among climatologists and scientists in related fields that the earth was about to enter a new ice age. Drastic proposals were made, such as exploding hydrogen bombs over the polar icecaps (to melt them) or damming the Bering Strait (to prevent cold Arctic water from entering the Pacific Ocean), to avert this impending disaster. Well-reputed scientists, not just uninformed wackos, made such proposals. How quickly we forget.

Researchers who employ unorthodox methods or theoretical frameworks have great difficulty under modern conditions in getting their findings published in the "best" journals or, at times, in any scientific journal. Scientific innovators or creative eccentrics always strike the great mass of practitioners as nut cases―until it becomes impossible to deny their findings, a time that often comes only after one generation's professional ring-masters have died off. Science is an odd undertaking: everybody strives to make the next breakthrough, yet when someone does, he is often greeted as if he were carrying the ebola virus. Too many people have too much invested in the reigning ideas; for those people an acknowledgment of their own idea's bankruptcy is tantamount to an admission that they have wasted their lives.

This makes it pretty obvious why those on one side of a scientific issue have to work to prevent opposing opinions from getting much attention. But that’s not all:

If your work, for whatever reason, does not appeal to the relevant funding agency's bureaucrats and academic review committees, you can forget about getting any money to carry out your proposal. Recall the human frailties I mentioned previously; they apply just as much in the funding context as in the publication context. Indeed, these two contexts are themselves tightly linked: if you don't get funding, you'll never produce publishable work, and if you don't land good publications, you won't continue to receive funding.

When your research implies a "need" for drastic government action to avert a looming disaster or to allay some dire existing problem, government bureaucrats and legislators (can you say "earmarks"?) are more likely to approve it. If the managers at the NSF, NIH, and other government funding agencies gave great amounts of money to scientists whose research implies that no disaster looms or no dire problem now exists or even that although a problem exists, no currently feasible government policy can do anything to solve it without creating even greater problems in the process, members of Congress would be much less inclined to throw money at the agency, with all the consequences that an appropriations cutback implies for bureaucratic thriving.

Interesting side to this debate that the media is loathe to share with the public, wouldn’t you agree?

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.