A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

How dangerous are peer review and consensus in science?.....

Although it is important never to sell science wholesale to the peddlers of postmodernist relativism, this does not mean that we should sacrifice our innate wariness with respect to the concepts of consensus and peer validation in science. Indeed, the whole history of science is one whereby consensus and peers are ultimately overthrown, or sidelined, or absorbed into a new construction of knowledge, or replaced in their significance by our opening new windows onto the world of Nature. This is the plate tectonics of science, which is itself a classic 500-year exemplar.

As I would constantly remind my students, how you would view a river depended entirely on the date and age of the classroom in which you had been a pupil. First, valleys formed rivers; then, with uniformitarianism, rivers valleys; later, with the famous Davisian cycle (1899), rivers became constructs of evolutionary time, to be replaced, in the 1960s, by rivers as modern, dynamic, engineering entities. Now, even catastrophism is back in vogue. Within just one hundred years, the windows through which the world viewed this seemingly everyday phenomenon of Nature altered so radically that a student from the 1840s would be amazed by the student of the 1960s. And it is important to emphasize that we did not inexorably move, in some Whig-like fashion, from a 'poor' understanding of 'the truth' to a better 'truth', for every single hegemonic stage held only some portion of truth (although, granted, the truth-value of each portion may vary). Indeed, our gain in understanding was often accompanied by a loss. In opening one window on the world, we so often close another, which, much later on, we may well have to force open once again as the air in the room becomes stale.

Our stream of consciousness about rivers should warn us that science and scientists cannot avoid being, to some degree (often quite unconsciously), controlled by the prevailing philosophies and fancies of their age, and that there is always the human tendency to wallow in the sin of 'presentism'. Hegemonic philosophies will manipulate the essence of the questions asked (as well as the roads not taken), the essence of the questioning, the framing of theories and hypotheses, the perception of data, the generation of funding, and the policy implications and responses of the politicians and the public. New work from Ireland has shown a powerful link between badgers and TB in cattle, but there is no way that the British government will act on this because it is currently philosophically (in terms of sentiments) unacceptable to do so.

Peer review in science is thus a paradox, being, at one and the same time, both a safeguard and a great danger. Ultimately, there is remarkably little timeless-consensus in science (except, perhaps, aspects of mathematics, which is the nearest to perfection in language sensu early Wittgenstein), and some might argue that consensus is potentially worrying and cloying. This is where 'peer' review has a deep problem, because the 'peers' work only within partly-overlapping circles, both in time and in intellectual space. And we must always remember that the circles derided today may become, however unlikely it may seem at the time, the hegemonic circles of the future.

There are, however, certain fundamentals of science that should always raise the flag of wariness about any present construct relating to a complex phenomenon of Nature. Above all, single-variable explanations are likely to be but the product of their age, and of its narrow hegemonic concerns, and they are also likely to be, at best highly partial, at worst untrue. This is precisely why I remain deeply distrustful of the current science that claims we can 'manage' climate change (the ultimate in complexity) predictably on the single selected variable of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. I believe this hubristic 'myth' is much more a sociological phenomenon, not a long-term, tenable scientific truth. Indeed, it is surely the perfect product of an age which feels out-of-control, finds terror at every corner, and wishes, above all, to flagellate itself for every outcome on the Earth? And scientists, as we have seen, are no more immune than anyone else from the paranoias of their age.

Beware, therefore, consensus and peer review predicated on single factors, for those factors are most likely to be but children of their time.

Philip, off for a most complex, multifaceted lunch, and then to the dentist. I hope you enjoy getting your teeth into this important topic.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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