Putting Peer Review in Its Place
|September 14, 2009||Posted by Steve Fuller under Atheism, Creationism, Culture, Darwinism, Intelligent Design, Philosophy, Religion, Science|
In the Darwinism debates, ‘peer review’ is often invoked as a panacea – quite mistakenly, since these debates presuppose a much more free-ranging intellectual universe than the one in which peer review is effective. By ‘peer review’ I mean the process by which colleagues in the field to which one aspires to contribute vet articles before they are published. To be sure, peer review has its uses. It catches obvious errors of fact, curbs overstretched inferences and enables an author to phrase things so that the intended message is received properly.
In other words, peer review is a kind of specialist editing – full stop. It is not the mechanism by which disputes concerning overarching explanatory frameworks are usefully settled, since these typically involve judgements about the relative weighting given to various bodies of evidence that one would explain in a common fashion. Substantial disagreements over such judgements typically have less to do with factual issues than deeper, philosophical ones about what a field is ultimately about.
So, peer review might have stopped Michael Behe from saying that Darwinian processes could not possibly explain the bacterial flagellum. Rather it would have limited him to saying that no agreement has been reached on such an explanation, and that it is difficult to see how agreement could be reached on the matter. This re-specification would have spared Behe from having to face a plethora of alternative accounts of how the flagellum could have evolved, none of which have been shown to be correct – but are no less possible. Peer review is good at preventing this sort of fruitless dispute that, to this day, takes up an enormous amount of space in the ID literature.
Peer review might also usefully intervene in an issue that Cornelius Hunter repeatedly raises, namely, the theological commitments of Darwinist claims. Surely, Hunter and I are not the only two people who find it absolutely bizarre that atheists routinely make claims about what God would or would not have done vis-à-vis the design features of nature. The people making these claims don’t even believe that theology has a real subject matter, yet they make claims as if it did and are then expected to be taken seriously by people who not only believe that theology is a real subject but also know something about what it says. Moreover, it is not that these atheists have disproved the existence of God and hence officially invalidated the domain of theology. At least, such disproofs have not appeared in peer-reviewed publications.
The fault here really lies with professional theologians and clerics who let claims by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, etc. pass in silence rather than calling for peer review over their claims. For example, theodicy starts with the assumption that the design features of nature are not especially intelligible if one considers particular organisms or events in isolation. So anyone who tries to cast doubt on God’s existence by pointing to the seemingly awkward construction of an organism is like the ignoramus who denies the earth’s motion because the ground appears still to him. An argument of comparable stupidity that would not pass muster in physics should not be allowed to pass muster in theology.
So, my view on peer review is as follows: It has an important but limited role in Darwinism disputes, which have been overextended in some respects but underutilised in others. In particular, editorial errors relating to natural science matters are often illegitimately leveraged into grounds for censoring alternative explanatory frameworks, while blatant ignorance of theology is allowed to pass as reasonable counterargument in the spirit of ecumenical tolerance. A balancing of the dialectical ledger is in order.