Posted by jlwile on September 6, 2011
On August 4, 2004, an article by Stephen C. Meyer appeared in a rather obscure peer-reviewed journal entitled The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington,1 and it quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. Why? Did it contain fabricated data? No. That kind of thing doesn’t produce nearly as much controversy. One study, for example, says that 14% of scientists have observed their colleagues fabricating, falsifying, and modifying their data, and 72% have observed their colleagues engaging in questionable research practices.2 Did the article contain egregious errors? No. While the article has many detractors, their criticisms were leveled more at the fact that it was published than at the content of the work.
So what caused the controversy? This peer-reviewed article not only had the audacity to argue that the current view of evolution can never hope to explain life as we see it today, it actually dared to say:
An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate–and perhaps the most causally adequate–explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent. For this reason, recent scientific interest in the design hypothesis is unlikely to abate as biologists continue to wrestle with the problem of the origination of biological form and the higher taxa.
That’s what caused the controversy. This well-reasoned paper, full of serious data-based arguments, was an attack on the scientific orthodoxy of the day and dared to argue that intelligent design was a reasonable scientific alternative. As a result, the Inquisition was mobilized. In the end, the publisher of the journal released a statement repudiating the article, the editor of the journal was branded a heretic, and he was then targeted for retaliation and harassment. After the dust had settled, the biological community breathed a sigh of relief, because orthodoxy had been successfully enforced. Another editor would surely think twice before allowing a well-reasoned argument for intelligent design to be published in his or her peer-reviewed journal, regardless of its quality.
Well, it seems that biology isn’t the only scientific field where orthodoxy is enforced by the Inquisition.
About a month ago, I posted a discussion of a research article published by the obscure peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing. The first author is an expert at using satellite data to interpret climate, and the paper used some of NASA’s best data to form its conclusion. While it had some shortcomings (as I mentioned in the post), it was a serious, well-founded analysis of current climate models, and it demonstrated that (as we already know) the models have major shortcomings and should not be taken nearly as seriously as groups like the United Nations want them to be taken.
This, of course, is another attack on scientific orthodoxy. After all, global warming is considered “gospel truth” by the high priests of climate science, and one of their main arguments is the predictions of global climate models. This study used high-quality data to show that those predictions are far from reliable. Unfortunately (as I discussed in my previous post), some commentators went way too far, saying that the study blew “a gaping hole in global warming alarmism.” While such statements were clearly unwarranted, the problem remained that the high priests of climate science were rather annoyed that someone would publish such a direct attack on their orthodoxy.
So once again, the Inquisition was mobilized. In this case, it convinced the editor of the journal to resign with a very public apology. The editor says that the paper was given three high-profile reviewers, and the reviewers suggested one major and one minor revision. The authors complied with the suggestions, and the paper was published. Thus, there was no problem with the peer-review process. However, the editor thinks the three reviewers all happened to agree with the authors when it comes to the fact that global warming is not the big problem everyone makes it out to be. As a result, the reviewers didn’t see any need for the authors to include any dissenting opinions in their paper.
The editor then goes on to say this:
In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents.
So there wasn’t any scientific misconduct involved. The peer-review process went smoothly and correctly. There weren’t even any clear-cut errors in the paper. The problem seems to be that the paper didn’t include any mention of dissenting opinions. And for this terrible offense, the editor resigned.
The problem is, I haven’t read very many scientific papers that do include dissenting opinions. Generally, a paper discusses data and then discusses the authors’ conclusions based on the data. Some authors do mention dissenting views, but such papers are the exception, not the rule. How many peer-reviewed papers that claim global warming is real and human-induced include the opinions of the climate scientists who disagree with that claim? I can’t think of one. So when you follow scientific orthodoxy, you don’t have to include dissenting opinions. However, if you have the audacity to challenge orthodoxy, you have to include dissenting opinions, or the inquisition will come after you.
It’s truly sad that science has devolved to this level, at least when it comes to certain fields.
1. Stephen C. Meyer, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117: 213-239, 2004.
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2. Daniele Fanelli, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data,” PLoS One 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738, 2009. (Available online)
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