Blissfully Informed Hippie Chick

Encouraging people to think critically about everything.

Peer Review (Finally) In Question

on May 4, 2015

I learned of the faults in the peer review process last year, in doing research about vaccinations. Most people like to point out to me that peer-reviewed studies show that vaccinations are far more helpful than harmful. They use this as “proof” that unvaccinated individuals are a threat to society, and just plain irresponsible. If the majority of the scientific community agrees that vaccinations are good, and even necessary, then we should all trust them, right? Well, first of all, here’s my opinion on following the “majority” when making decisions:

What if the majority is wrong?” Ah, but then we are back where we started, which is that one must decide for themselves. But you’ve already stated that vaccination shouldn’t be a personal choice. We lowly “regular” people cannot possibly make an educated decision for ourselves. We must trust the majority of doctors who tell us what is right. Then, I ask, why should you be allowed to decide what medications to take, or to give your child? Why should you be allowed to decide what surgeries to undergo? For that matter, why shouldn’t every aspect of our lives that could possibly affect our society be decided by a special council? What job you have, where you live, what you eat, whom you marry, how many children you have. Is that ad ridiculum? Maybe. But if the argument can be applied to one aspect of your life, why not all?

And now, the idea that peer-reviewed papers are the epitome of truth has begun to come into question. (You can read the full article here, but I’m going to highlight some quotes and provide my thoughts.)

Richard Smith, who edited the British Medical Journal for more than a decade, said there was no evidence that peer review was a good method of detecting errors and claimed that “most of what is published in journals is just plain wrong or nonsense”.

Are you thinking about all those peer-reviewed studies on vaccinations yet? “Just plain wrong or nonsense.”

Speaking at a Royal Society event earlier this week, he said an experiment conducted during his time at the BMJ, in which eight deliberate errors were included in a short paper sent to 300 reviewers, had exposed how easily the peer review process could fail. “No-one found more than five, the median was two, and 20 per cent didn’t spot any,” he was quoted as saying by Times Higher Education.

Is that the kind of quality control you want, when those papers are what doctors give us medical recommendations based off of?

He said the process of peer review before publication could also work against innovative papers, was open to abuse, and should be done away with…

“…work against innovative papers,…” What that means is, any idea that challenges the status quo will most likely be simply tossed out. How do we expect to make any forward progress with that attitude? How do you think we learned that diseases aren’t just “bad vapors” or that we shouldn’t clean dirty diapers in our drinking water? (Miasma Theory… the belief that epidemics were the result of “bad air”; not widely accepted as false until the 1880s. John Snow helped advance belief in germ theory by tracing a cholera epidemic to a mother washing a dirty diaper in a well.)

The editor of the second of the country’s two leading medical journals, Dr Richard Horton of The Lancet, wrote in an editorial earlier this month that “much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue”,…

“…may simply be untrue…”  If that’s not terrifying, I don’t know what is.

“The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming,” he wrote. “In their quest for telling a compelling story, too often sculpt their data to fit their preferred theory of the world.”

Sculpting data to fit their preferred view of the world? Are you kidding me? Is that what we consider “science”? Have we really not made any progress since Galileo was threatened with torture, placed under house arrest, and ordered to never tell anyone else his ideas about the theory that the Earth orbits the sun?

If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: question everything. Read as much as you can. Form your own opinions. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Don’t be afraid to go against the majority. Do what you feel is right. Trust your instincts.

(Read more here and here.)


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