March 8, 2010
March 8, 2010
Not every devotee of reason is himself reasonable: that is a lesson that the convinced, indeed militant, atheist, Richard Dawkins, has recently learned. It would, perhaps, be an exaggeration to say that he has learned it the hard way, for what he has suffered hardly compares with, say, what foreign communists suffered when, exiling themselves to Moscow in the 1920s and 30s, they learnt the hard way that barbarism did not spring mainly, let alone only, from the profit motive; but he has nevertheless learned it by unpleasant experience.
He ran a website for people of like mind, but noticed that many of the comments that appeared on it were beside the point, either mere gossip or insult. So he announced that he was going to exercise a little control over what appeared on it – as was his right since it was, after all, his site. Censorship is not failing to publish something, it is forbidding something to be published, which is not at all the same thing, though the difference is sometimes ill-appreciated.
The torrent of vile abuse that he received after his announcement took him aback. Its vehemence was shocking; someone called him ‘a suppurating rat’s rectum.’ He replied to this abuse with admirable restraint:
Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial.
As it happens, I have myself sometimes been the recipient of such abuse: if, that is, one can be said to be the recipient of anything that remains in the virtual world alone. No subject is too recondite to provoke the insensate rage of those who disagree with the view the author has taken of it. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if fury leading to ill-mannered personal abuse and foul language is the predominant mode of disagreement in our society, at least among those who append their comments to an article that appears on the internet.
For example, I received unpleasant abuse for articles I wrote about Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw. I am the first to admit that what I wrote was not emollient, indeed it strongly attacked both these figures to whom some people are strongly attached. But while I might have been mistaken in what I wrote, I do not think I am being partial in my own defence when I say that it was at least rational in the sense that it was based upon evidence culled from what they wrote. I quoted them at some length precisely to avoid the accusation of quotation out of context.
It is not necessary to repeat here what I said about them, but I shall give just one example. I pointed out that George Bernard Shaw never believed in the germ theory of disease (possibly the greatest advance in medical science ever made), regarded it as a delusion, and called Pasteur and Lister – two of the greatest benefactors of mankind, if one is prepared to admit that there can be such – impostors and frauds who had no idea of scientific method, unlike George Bernard Shaw, presumably. This was a preposterous, but not untypical, misjudgement of his, and one which he never recognised as such. Indeed, he went on re-publishing his libels on their memory until quite late in his life.
I suspect that he had that contrarian mindset that supposes that the truth must be the opposite of what everyone thinks, instead of the judicious mindset that supposes that the truth might be the opposite of what everyone thinks.
From the quality of the replies that I received, you might have supposed that I had animadverted on the moral qualities of the mothers of Latin American sons. No one ever wrote a reply (on these subjects, at any rate) claiming that I had misquoted them, quoted them out of context, misrepresented the totality of their work, overlooked their good qualities etc. I do not think I did these things, but still such replies would have been reasonable. No; I just received abuse, some of it unprintable and quite a lot of it vile.
The insults and abuse did not come from uneducated people. This is not surprising, really, because uneducated people are unlikely to care very much what George Bernard Shaw thought of the germ theory of disease; most of them have other, more practical things to think about. You have to have read Bernard Shaw to care, and these days at least, I think only university types are likely to do that.
Indeed, much of the abuse, even the vilest, came from university professors. Almost to a man (or woman), they said that what I had written was so outrageous, so ill-considered and ill-motivated, that it was not worth the trouble of refutation. On the other hand, they thought its author was worth insulting, if their practice was anything to go by. I didn’t know whether I – a mere scribbler – should feel flattered that I was deemed worthy of the scatological venom of professors (not all of them from minor institutions, and some of them quite eminent).
What struck me most about these missives is the sheer amount of hatred that they contained. It was not disdain or even contempt, but hatred…
March 8, 2010
The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, has acknowledged that it made a serious error in publishing a study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease. Earlier this month, a group of leading stem cell researchers wrote an open letter pointing out the systematic abuse of peer review by a small cabal of scientists, whom they accuse of using their position to slow down the publication of the findings of their competitors.
Then there is the scandal surrounding the leaked emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England, and the dubious data published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which further exposes a worrying trend towards the corruption of peer review.
Peer review is a system that subjects scientific and scholarly work to the scrutiny of other experts in the field. Ideally it ensures that research is only approved or published when it meets the standards of scientific rigour and its findings are sound. At its best, peer review guarantees that it is disinterested science which informs public discussion and debate. When established through peer review, the authority of science helps to clarify disputes and injects into public discussion the latest findings and research. Peer reviewing depends on a community of experts who are competent and committed to impartiality. It depends on the commitment and collaboration of scientists and scholars in a given field.
However, the individuals who constitute a ‘community of experts’ also tend to be preoccupied with their own personal position and status. Often, the colleagues they are reviewing and refereeing are their competitors and sometimes even their bitter rivals. The contradiction between working as a member of an expert community and one’s own personal interests cannot always be satisfactorily resolved.
Unfortunately, even with the best will in the world, peer reviewing is rarely an entirely disinterested process. All too often the system of peer review is infused with vested interests. As many of my colleagues in academia know, peer reviewing is frequently carried out through a kind of mates’ club, between friends and acquaintances, and all too often the question of who gets published and who gets rejected is determined by who you know and where you stand in a particular academic debate.
Peer reviewing cannot remain immune to the preoccupations, agenda and interests of the individuals who carry it out. Even when they have the best intentions, academics and scientists can overlook errors and become blind to the importance of a new but maverick contribution. They are ordinary mortals who have their fair share of prejudices, and are often no less petty or self-centred than other people can sometimes be. Nevertheless, peer reviewing has traditionally, at least, been the most effective way of exercising quality control over the proposals and output of the scholarly and scientific communities.