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Simon Singh on peer review

I was intrigued to see Simon Singh retweeting a letter to the Times criticising the peer review system. Penned by Professor Tony Waldron of UCL, it described peer review as being a system in which one group of scientists does its best to stop another group from publishing. I'm sure plenty of readers will have no dispute with this.

Given Singh also has great enthusiasm for mainstream positions on climate change and a tendency to invoke the peer reviewed literature and the IPCC in his support, I wondered if these two positions weren't a bit inconsistent.


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Reader Comments (29)

and? there's plent of empty space for inconsistent ideas to live together in-between the same ears, without having to deal with each other.

May 26, 2014 at 10:46 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

The ability to spin like a weathercock is useful in order to rise to the top for a lot of media pundits.

May 26, 2014 at 10:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Savage

I think I would have been happier if had pushed more its anti warmist policies. It certainly has the opportunity of reshaping green policies, at local level. There are too many green fascists in our own halls.

May 26, 2014 at 10:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

Apparently Melinda Baldwin is writing a history.
Her blog post reminded me of Andrew's coverage of the peer review in the Hockey Stick Illusion:
In all, I am very persuaded that history does not show, as we thought it might, that it is a tried and true method of selection.
Luckily, today we have blogs. (h/t Jo Nova)

May 26, 2014 at 11:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterBernieL

Self awareness would be a fine thing!

May 26, 2014 at 11:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterLjh

Cog Dis.

Like my leftie friends who think capitalism and markets are evil, but love their corner shop.

May 26, 2014 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Topical cartoon: scientists vs science cheerleaders

Has Mr Singh majored in English by any chance?

May 26, 2014 at 12:04 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Personally, I am a little perplexed as to why a paper has to be peer-reviewed before it is seriously considered for reading. What is wrong with presenting your paper on completion, and let the general public decide its merits? For most papers, the readership will probably be the few who have any interest or knowledge in the subject, thus will be able to make up their own minds as to whether or not the author is publishing poppycock or not. The present “has to be peer-reviewed” ethos gets the bizarre situation where one party in an argument will not look at another’s supporting documents as they have not been peer-reviewed; a very narrow-minded attitude, I am sure you will agree. How long before we get reviewers of papers refusing to review as the paper they have been given to review has not been peer-reviewed?

(BTW, Peter Stroud, I think you are posting on the wrong thread...)

May 26, 2014 at 12:10 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

In not sure why anyone is so surprised. Clearly Singhs brain is sooooo huge that he can have two ideas at the same time that will never come in to contact with each other.


May 26, 2014 at 1:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Thank you, Omnologos, for drawing our attention to that wonderful cartoon- it makes a point that is beginning to be lost sight of, even here.
I don't want to start up on what peer review actually is (rather than what it is thought to be by those who "don't work in science") but I must remind RR that the distinction that was thought to be important was between "peer-reviewed literature" where authors should show, or provide access to, their working and the kind of opinion pieces e.g. "the Himalayan glaciers are melting", that were, fraudulently, being given equal weight by the IPCC to peer-reviewed papers.

May 26, 2014 at 1:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

I suspect Singh's position is that the paper's rejection is just another example of routine academic in-fighting, nothing at all to do with a consensus trying to protect itself.

May 26, 2014 at 1:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

This type of disconnect is quite common. At last weeks 'Circling the square' meeting in Nottingham, one scientist was very critical of the 'impact' criterion that is used to judge research these days, saying it was a recipe for corruption. He was also very critical of scientists over-hyping their research with misleading press releases. But this was all in the context of biomedical research - he did not join the dots to the most overhyped science of all.

Peer review was also briefly discussed, with one contributor enthusiastically plugging the PubPeer system, which involves post-publication comments.

May 26, 2014 at 2:09 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

I saw Simon Singh at a recent unconventional talking about sceptics - he's not as clever as he thinks he is.
Basically he had one best selling book - Fermat's Last Theorem - not well written and published a few years after a Horizon on the same topic on which it is obviously based. His book on alternative medicine showed his lack of experience combined with arrogance, which he nearly paid for with his house if he had not been rescued by others. He's as extreme as the extreme warmists in his own way and is very good at combining publicity seeking and jumping on bandwagons.

May 26, 2014 at 2:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterDeds

Simon Singh is not a deep thinker nor realyl professional scientist, he is similar to Iain Stewart and Brian Cox. These people are just TV presenters and read from a script which does not require any skill but to smile no matter what.

Therefore, you cannot expect them to understand the issues regarding climate change, they just follow the party (BBC) line. So there are no inconsistencies or conflicts which would afflict a thinking person!

May 26, 2014 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterCharmingQuark

Skeptical Chymist: yes, I am fully aware of the difference between a scientific paper and a press release. That was not the point of my argument: I wanted to know why cannot a paper be published for public perusal without "peer-review" to make it valid? In publishing, the author will have to display the sources, the calculations, methods and logic that led to the conclusion. Okay, have it proof-read for typos, but what is to stop the paper being openly available for public view without the need for peer-review? It would then be available – uncensored, perhaps – for anyone to rip apart. One good example appeared on this site a short while ago (however, the Bishop does not seem to like it, and as this is his gaff, we follow his rules); I thought it a thought-provoking article, which contained the data, its source(s), the calculations and logic used to reach its conclusion. While I may not be up to giving it a proper appraisal, I was intrigued that the troll I was arguing with would not even consider it because… well, you can guess.

May 26, 2014 at 2:24 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Am currently putting together a paper on 'Cognitive dissonance, fraud and human development'.

With us humans having the same brain for 100,000 years give or take, we are presented with a problem: there is a vehicle bouncing around on the Mars surface now, but 100 years ago we would probably have to start our vehicle with a crank handle. Why have we gone from crank handle to Mars rover in 100 years, but took 99,900 years to make the crank handled car? There has been a constant theme of various franchise or interest groups that dictate their agenda to society, backed up by a robust policy of molding fear and virtue to suit their own ambitions, whilst subjecting dissenters to various cruel and unusual sanctions. Our current state of technical achievement is based entirely upon achieving an understanding of facts, rather than bowing to theoretical policies based upon unknowns and desires. Bad history is repeating itself by having uncomfortable facts swept aside to ensure the prevailing virtue-franchise can continue with its policies. At some point the acolytes and clerics of the popular creed have to delve into the murky realm of fraud, in their bid to reject accurate and relevant information, so they can revert back to their comfort zone from which they derive some kind of stasis (and financial reward).

The failure is perhaps ours in that we the 'scientists' have failed to appreciate the true nature of this beast thus failed to address the problem in the appropriate fashion. We might all say to the rape victim 'why didn't you go to the police so they could have dealt with it then'. Are we so different in that false and irrelevant arguments are produced to reject sound science? We fidget and worry about the injustice, while letting the perpetrators of this fraud dictate to us that the scientific fact has now become a democracy, subject to popular ambitions and monitory constraints. Have said enough. Will now take my own medicine and reappraise my last missal to the director of public prosecutions re the E&CC committees secretariat rejection of the observation that there has been a significant change in the planets largest weather system. Does stating that an event which encompass one third of the planets circumference as being 'regional' constitute 'fraud by misrepresentation'?

May 26, 2014 at 2:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterConor McMenemie

Rat + sinking ship = ?

May 26, 2014 at 4:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

Singh something simple as Time goes by.......

May 26, 2014 at 4:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpartacusisfree

As for the peer review system, there's an interesting discussion on JoNova:

May 26, 2014 at 4:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpartacusisfree

Radical rodent: I'm sure that you know the difference between a scientific paper and a press release. You asked why a paper has to be peer-reviewed before it is seriously considered. My point was that the very distinction between opinion and science had become blurred in the minds of many people (including the IPCC) and that "peer review" has now, rightly or wrongly, become a touchstone for a real scientific publication. I understand that you and many others advocate so-called open publication, my personal view is that it won't work as well as the old system does.

May 26, 2014 at 5:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

The JoNova piece on peer review is wrong if it suggests Watson&Crick's paper was not peer reviewed. It appears to be a misinterpretation of John Maddox's reported comment that the 1953 DNA paper would never have made it past modern peer review because it was too speculative. I take that as a former editor taunting his successors with his coup.

May 26, 2014 at 5:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

The real issue with Crick and Watson is that the explosion of scientific output has vastly increased the amount of second and worse rate publications. In Climate Science, you now have Modelling papers using the output of previous models as if they were real data.

A truly innovative mind will always whittle the problem down to simple physical principles which in time shut down bad science, but you can't have anyone like that near modern Climate research.......

May 26, 2014 at 5:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpartacusisfree

Richard Horton (Lancet editor)

The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.

May 26, 2014 at 6:48 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Mr Singh appears to be the type of person that my Aussie mates refer to as a 'Galah', a colourful bird that easily and frequently attracts attention by uttering meaningless shrieks.

May 26, 2014 at 8:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

Radical R and Sceptical C--

The physicists a decade or two ago answered RR's question (about why can't we have papers published openly without peer review) affirmatively by setting up Arxiv on-line, where anyone can publish anything. The idea was that poor papers will attract no attention, whereas good papers will get comments that may make them better. Often after the paper has been on-line for a while, the authors revise it according to comments and publish in one of the more mainstream physics journals. I don't know why this worked well in physics but does not seem to have been tried elsewhere,or perhaps it has and I'm just not up to speed.

May 26, 2014 at 10:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterLance Wallace

Given Singh also has great enthusiasm for mainstream positions on climate change and a tendency to invoke the peer reviewed literature and the IPCC in his support, I wondered if these two positions weren't a bit inconsistent.

No because he considers there is no science on the sceptics side therefore there can be no attempt to block it . You see when you regard everything on your side to be automatically right and everything on the other automatically wrong , they you 'know' the other side cannot have any real evidenced nor argument . So hear his talking about peer review in any other area but climate 'science' where every word published in support has come straight from god.

May 26, 2014 at 11:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

I have no credentials whatever to be posting here--none except that I claim to be capable of independent thought.

Ever since I figured out what the term meant (thinking solidified by hearing of, then investigating "The Sokal Hoax") I have believed that any reference to it was a sure sign of fraud.

My beliefs about science as a method of thinking is based on readings about and by people like Richard Feynman and lots others.

I have come to the conclusion that "peer review" ensures that you can prove that somebody else said what you said before your saying it can be accepted. At best.

May 27, 2014 at 7:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterLarry Sheldon

Having previously been impressed with some of Mr Singh's work I have come to realise that he is yet another pseudointellectual that thinks the scientific method is a form of 'pick and mix'.

May 27, 2014 at 8:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jones

Yes, climate science peer review can be a system of denying people with the "wrong" opinions from publishing. But don't forget the obverse: "pal review," where you chose your friendly reviewers, or the editor does it for you, or both, ensuring publication, but not ensuring proper scrutiny.

May 27, 2014 at 2:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn

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