Posted by: Dan | May 5, 2009

The Public Ignorance of Peer Review in Science

I’ve ventured into online discussion forums regarding evolution, global warming, and stem cell research, and occasionally on autism & vaccinations and homeopathy nonsense. One thing that always stands out is that the vast majority of the loons on these topics rarely know that the peer review process exists, and if they do, they think it unimportant. Even some people claiming to hold PhDs. I find this disturbing, jaw-dropping even.

Apparently, Peer Review is one thing science teachers should teach more about, or so argues The Scientist.

Teachers have been giving feedback on what has caught the imagination of the students. The interviews with “real” scientists and editors describing their experience of the peer review system “raised a few eyebrows.” The students were shocked to discover that the process existed at all, and that scientists welcomed constructive criticism from their peers about how they could improve a paper. This challenged the notion of scientists always being “right.” That most reviewers give their time for free also hit a chord.

One teacher pointed out that in most textbooks, peer review is rarely mentioned. Instead students are encouraged to deliberate over news reports of controversies, meaning that when it comes to something like the food additives debate they are left trying to work out what status the different research claims have with no guidance other than their personal judgment on the newspaper the article has appeared in (“The New York Times says X, so it must be right…”).

Is the public understanding of science THAT bad? Yes, yes it is.


Responses

  1. As a university student I am absolutely addicted to peer-reviewed studies for reliable data. Even if the study has subjective tints in the essay itself or not, but then that is where constructive criticism comes in, and usually alternative viewpoints within the studies themselves. One problem is that most databases with peer-reviewed content is usually subscription-based and not allowed to the general public, only for universities and colleges and some limited ones for high school.

  2. Awesome post, absolutely. I think more should be done to educate people on how the scientific process really works “behind the scenes”.

  3. […] this does not mean that all climate science is crap!  There are peer review processes, where independent scientists review other scientists’ data before it is […]


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