Science & Faith
10/10/12 at 11:32 AM 12 Comments

Scientific Peer Review is in Trouble: From Medical Science to Darwinism

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Although it likely increases the quality of scientific research funded by your tax dollars, The Center for Scientific Review, which monitors (by peer review) most of the grant applications to the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), is not the final answer to dishonesty and bias in science. Peer review works best when most of the reviewers believe in at least two truths:

1. Objective moral values (like honesty) exist.

2. Human minds originated from a source that underwrites proper cognitive function aimed at discovering truth about reality.

Here lies the problem. Materialistic modernism, which has embraced Darwinism, undermines belief in the two statements above. Lets start with "morality" as conceived by two influential Darwinists today:

“Morality… is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.... In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” New Scientist 108 (October 17, 1985):50–52.

In contrast, Dr. Stephen Meyer argues in TrueU (Does God Exist?) that the existence of God provides the only coherent explanation for the conditions of an objective and meaningful system of morality (which we seem to experience when angered by episodes of scientific misconduct that I shall write about below). If you want to explore Meyer's moral argument for God's existence, then invest in the TrueU (Does God Exist?) curriculum (at least download the free leader's guide that summarizes the argument).

Regarding the second statement above that peer reviewers would best embrace to promote honest in scientific research, here is how I explain the situation to my students at The College at Southwestern in a course called Reasoning (we cover logic, critical thinking, fallacies, etc.). Evolutionary naturalism contributed to the crisis in human reasoning called postmodernism, because even highly evolved creatures (allegedly us) would have no basis for thinking that our brains tell us the truth about reality. Survival is all that matters on evolutionary naturalism. Our evolving brains are more likely to give us useful fictions that promote survival rather than the truth about reality. Thus evolutionary naturalism undermines all rationality (including confidence in science itself). Renown philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued against naturalism in this way (see a summary of that argument here).

Or, if your short on time and patience to grasp Plantinga's nuanced argument, see if you can digest this thought from evolutionary cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker, who baldly states:

"Our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth; sometimes the truth is adaptive, sometimes it is not." Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 305. As cited here.

But if humans are made in God's image, then we have a basis for confidence in knowing many truths about the world that God created. And if humans fell from grace soon after our creation, then this explains why we need a robust peer review process that will help limit the intellectual sin of scientific misconduct. The majority of scientists (and ordinary people in western cultures) have abandoned such moral and intellectual foundations, and at a great cost to us all.

So how is peer review in trouble from medical science to Darwinism, given what I have argued thus far? Peer review, ideally, is when honest experts keep other experts honest by reviewing their research and validating (or rejecting) its legitimacy based on independent non-partisan review. Do we have any evidence that scientific peer review has been in crisis in recent decades? Unfortunately yes.

For documentation see Denyse O'Leary’s excellent article in Salvo Magazine, “Bunk Science: If Peer Review Is Working, Why All the Retractions?” Consider especially these selections from O'Leary’s pithy essay (links to footnotes are in her essay linked above):

Bias Toward the Positive
One well-recognized problem is a deforming bias toward publishing positive findings. As Daniel Sarewitz put it in Nature, when positive findings are published, "scientists are rewarded both intellectually and professionally, science administrators are empowered and the public desire for a better world is answered." He also notes that "the lack of incentives to report negative results, replicate experiments or recognize inconsistencies, ambiguities and uncertainties is widely appreciated—but the necessary cultural change is incredibly difficult to achieve."3

Retractions Up, Repeatability Down
Meanwhile, plagiarism is said to have "skyrocketed" over the past decade.8 Retractions have boomed, too. As science writer Carl Zimmer tells us (2012), "the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent."9

Sexy Findings for the Media
The social sciences have rocked to some juicy scandals in recent years. Diedrik Stapel, a recently suspended professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was famous for his edgy findings, widely publicized in prestigious journals. For example, as James Barham explains at the blogsite The first paper upended a gender stereotype (alpha-female politicos philander, too?!), while the second linked the physical world to the psychological one in a striking manner (a messy desk leads to racist thoughts!?). Both received extensive news coverage."13 Trouble was, Stapel had made up or manipulated dozens of papers over nearly a decade.14

Suggested Fixes
Various fixes for the problem are on offer. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett reports on an effort called the Reproducibility Project, part of the Open Science Framework, which aims to expose the bunk by focusing on reproducibility of findings. "This," Bartlett writes, "is a polite way of saying, 'We want to see how much of what gets published turns out to be bunk.'"23 But what if the problems run deeper than exposing bunk? For example, Dutch psychologist Jelte M. Wicherts notes that most social psychologists "simply fail to document their data in a way that allows others to quickly and easily check their work."24 He advocates sharing data, which sounds like a fine idea, but if this failure has gone unaddressed for decades, how do we know what data isn't bunk?

Fudging Truth for the Cause
Cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker insists, "Our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth; sometimes the truth is adaptive, sometimes it is not."28 And Darwinian philosophers like Michael Ruse insist that ethics is an illusion.29 When scientists accept these accounts of ethics, a dilemma arises: Materialistic atheism is supposed to accurately account for all events. All contrary results will eventually yield to that overriding fact. Then why not fudge a little in the short term, so that the triumph will not be delayed by present-day inconveniences such as stubborn disbelief? Well-known atheist science writer John Horgan explicitly endorses lying for science in such cases as the effort to fight global warming: "It's a war, and when people are waging war, they always lie for their cause."30

A Different Standard for Christians
Christians face this temptation, too. But for Christians, truth is a Person, a Person who never asked them to lie for him, but who, on the contrary, threatens to consign liars to the fire (Rev. 21:8), not to tenure.

Then comes O'Leary’s conclusion, which reinforces my initial points in this blog:

Thus—to the extent that scientists accept materialistic atheism—we will likely see plenty of smoke, noise, and mirrors around reform, but no real reform. Real reform means deciding that ethics is not an illusion but a correct relationship with reality. And discovering truth is what a brain is fit for. Science used to be like that.

Read O'Leary’s complete article here. Also listen to a related podcast: Peer-Review: Ensuring Quality or Enforcing Orthodoxy? See the podcast summary below:

Is the only good science peer-reviewed science? Are there other avenues to present important scientific work? On this episode of ID The Future, Professor of Mathematics Dr. Frank Tipler discusses the pros and cons of peer review and refereed journals. More than fifty peer-reviewed papers discussing intelligent design have been published, but critics of the theory still proclaim a lack of peer-reviewed work as an argument. Listen in as Tipler shows how things have changed with the peer review process and what we can do about it.

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