Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Peer Review Again

The New Scientist has an article about peer review and how science is failing. It shows how psuedo-science can end up as part of the public record as it was introduced to Parliament by Davd Tredinnick. Tredinnick was quoting a University study that "showed" that homeopathic treatment can kill cancer cells. This article had been peer reviewed and now it has been clearly debunked but it still has not been withdrawn. Peer review is failing. The problem is that this undermines confidence and belief in science. Science is about giving answers and more fundamentally about giving us rational grounds for making decisions. Faith in science can easily be destroyed, when poor scientists let their internal views and convictions over-ride their actual experiments. There are two ways errors like this can occur.

  1. Intentional deception.
  2. Accidental mistake.
The first we can deal with by applying ethics policies and reviewing our processes but the second is harder to deal with. Even the greatest scientists are sometimes wrong because they have world views that turn out to be wrong. Einstein never accepted quantum mechanics, Mach never accepted atomic reality etc. Then there are scientists who make mistakes with their experiments or analysis, often this is the abuse of statistics. Mendel fiddled his statistics and got the right answer, Fleishman and Pons did not perform the correct measurements in their cold-fusion experiment, but there was no intention to deceive.

So how can we make peer review better? Certainly making it public and not anonymous would help people to behave more honestly and ss competitively. What we need is a fundamental change in the way scientists behave. Science has to have less ego and reputation which makes it more likely for scientists to maintain views that even they realise are not as rigorous as they claim.

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