Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The "fake peer-review" scandal shows...that science is self-correcting. The same is not true for YEC

Evolution denialists, when confronted with the overwhelming evidence for an ancient Earth and common descent resort to wholesale science denialism and paranoia, by claiming that there is a huge atheist conspiracy to deny special creationists access to the scientific journals. (Paradoxically, they also claim that peer review is flawed, corrupt, and unreliable, which of course means that any special creation article which does get into the scientific literature by their logic is also flawed, corrupt, and unreliable, but internal consistency and logical thought has never been a feature of hard-core special creationism.) Needless to say, any news report of major abuse of the peer review system or en bloc retraction of journals is interpreted by YEC science denialists as proof of the existence of a sinister corrupt atheistic scientific conspiracy.  [1]

The fact that it is this same 'atheistic scientific conspiracy' which calls out such examples of abuse, retracts papers, and openly discusses problems with peer review needless to say contradicts the feverish assertions by YEC science denialists that there is such a conspiracy, and shows that science, both as a philosophy and an institution is eventually self-correcting. By contrast, the special creationist movement has a well-earned reputation for deceit, incompetence, and reusing arguments long after they have been corrected by others. For special creationists to even try to claim the moral high ground here would represent hypocrisy of the highest order.

For anyone with a nodding familiarity with the scientific method, it is easy to see why special creationist attempts to discredit evolutionary biology by appealing to 'peer review scandal' not only are wrong, but betray a fundamental ignorance of scientific epistemology. Peer review is not the same thing as repeatability. The former is a method by which scientific papers are assessed by a panel of scientists with particular expertise in the discipline relevant to the paper being reviewed, in order to determine its suitability for publication. As such, it functions as a basic form of quality control. Like all human institutions, it is not perfect, and various methods to improve quality control. The rise of the Internet and scientific blogging has seen a form of post-publication review emerge, where errors in published articles can be quickly pointed out. The example of how flaws in a paper that claimed some bacteria could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its molecules were identified shows one way in which errors in peer review can be detected and corrected.

The concept of repeatability is a fundamental principle of the scientific method. If the claims of one scientist can be reproduced by many other scientists, then the likelihood of the first scientist having discovered something increases considerably. Conversely, if a scientific experiment is not repeatable, then it is likely that the original scientist was mistaken. The classic example in modern times is the 'cold fusion' claim of Pons and Fleischmann; confidence in their claim vanished when other scientists were unable to reproduce their experimental results. It hardly needs stressing that failures in the peer review process do not mean that the scientific method itself is flawed, or that repeatable results such as the constancy of nuclear decay constants, or the existence of shared identical retroviral elements at the same position in human and ape genomes which show the great age of the Earth and the reality of human-ape common ancestry respectively magically vanish. Trying to undermine the scientific method, and the facts of an ancient Earth and common descent which threaten a fundamentalist distortion of the Bible by conflating peer review with repeatability in science may convince a paranoid, fundamentalist, science-denying fringe of Christianity, but for anyone familiar with the facts, such attempts are patently unconvincing.


1. It must be a very incompetent conspiracy, what with one part busily suppressing special creationists and manufacturing fake papers, while the other part calls out such fraud, retracts the offending papers, and alerts the media. As I said, internal consistency and logical thought are not a feature of hard-core special creationism.