Is the Peer Review Process Advancing Science?

In today’s society, we often look to science as an unbiased source of truth, regulated by the peer review process. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of publication bias—well-documented in the scientific literature—permeates a variety of scientific studies. To put it one way, certain points of view are more likely to be published than others for reasons other than the quality of research.

For example, the authors of a 2015 meta-analysis of US National Institutes of Health trials pinpointed publication bias as the reason why we overestimate the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. Another 2015 meta-analysis of the social cost of carbon (a concept related to global warming) found that contrary data was often suppressed which “might create an upward bias in the literature.”1 The authors of the study also found that “the evidence for selective reporting is stronger for studies published in peer-reviewed journals than for unpublished papers.” These data support an earlier analysis that found a strong publication bias in favor of human-caused global warming in articles published in Science and Nature.2

Even our choice of breakfast foods is affected by publication bias. For example, the World Health Organization has recently classified bacon and other processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans,” but this is tempered by a 1994 meta-analysis that found that publication bias in cancer epidemiology is “arguably high.”3 Add to this decades of contradictory research about the benefit or detriment of coffee and eggs and people might become justifiably skeptical about science, at least with regards to their diets.

Science recently published the results of a massive study with more than 250 coauthors “estimating the reproducibility of psychological science.”4 After conducting replications of 100 studies that were published in three psychology journals, the researchers found only 39 percent of the effects replicated the original result. Reproducibility is one of the three pillars of science.5 An experiment repeated under the same conditions should produce similar results; if it doesn’t, then it’s back to the drawing board. Yet it appears 61 percent of psychology studies fail this test.

The peer review process is supposed to pick up errors like these, but instead it seems complicit. And the problem appears much broader than just these examples.

Why does publication bias slip through peer review? When we follow the money we find that results often match the objectives of whoever finances the research: whether a government, a business, or a foundation. The worldview of a publication’s editors can also be an important factor; an article might be published or rejected based on philosophical assumptions rather than on the quality of research. (For Christian scientists, publication bias based on worldview is a principle hurdle.)

Dogma vs. Facts

Science should be based on facts, not dogma—and that includes atheist dogma as well as Christian dogma. After all, as the late Michael Crichton detailed in a 2003 speech, “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.”6 Atheist environmentalists believe there is no God and that humans are an evolutionary accident that is destroying the planet, while Christians believe there is a God who created humans in His image to be stewards of creation. Neither statement can be scientifically proven. Yet, although scientific peer review has no problem rejecting Christian dogma, global warming publication bias shows that it accepts environmental dogma. (Environmental dogma is really not science but trans-science;7 so many interacting, poorly understood variables are involved that the models have not proven to be predictive.)

Modern biological and paleontological publications usually contain excellent science based on observation and analysis. But dogma often surfaces in the abstracts, introductions, or conclusions as the authors pay homage to natural selection as the causative agent. Appealing to a supernatural Designer is not a welcome perspective in these journals. If Sir Isaac Newton were to submit Principia, his seventeenth-century opus, for peer review today, it would surely be sent back requiring deletion of this reference to God and rejection of naturalistic evolution:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from…an intelligent and powerful Being…called the Lord God…Blind metaphysical necessity…could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things…could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being, necessarily existing.8

Macroevolution has never been observed directly. As an earlier RTB article suggested, evolutionary theory shares more in common with religious mythology than with solid scientific principles—and yet this view continues to receive preferential treatment in the literature.

Meanwhile, studies that show religious practices, such as prayer, in a positive light tend to draw criticism because they are not published in peer-reviewed journals. Craig Keener has written two volumes documenting his comprehensive scientific study regarding the validity of contemporary miracles.9 Yet it is unlikely a peer-reviewed journal would accept research documenting the efficacy of prayer or the validity of miracles.

The Good News

Fortunately, much peer-reviewed modern science—especially in physics and histology—is providing strong evidence to infer the existence of a creator-God. The late Antony Flew’s book detailing how the “world’s most notorious atheist” came to believe in God10 illustrates this, as does the research resulting in the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (as will be discussed in a future article).

There is more good news: peer review errors are becoming highly publicized. This means that even though the peer-review process is governed by diverse people with diverse worldviews and loyalties, it is likely that the scientific community as a whole will adopt a renewed emphasis on quality of research above other considerations. This would be good news for Christian scientists and others whose research challenges dearly held paradigms.

By Dr. Hugh Henry
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.

Endnotes
1. Tomas Havranek et al., “Selective Reporting and the Social Cost of Carbon,” Social Science Research Network, CERGE-EI Working Paper Series no. 533, March 1, 2015, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2585972.
2. Patrick Michaels, “Evidence for ‘Publication Bias’ Concerning Global Warming in Science and Nature,” Energy and Environment 19 (March 2008): 287–301, doi:10.1260/095830508783900735.
3. R. D. Morris, “Meta-analysis in Cancer Epidemiology,” Environmental Health Perspectives 102, Supplement 8 (November 1994): 61–66.
4. Open Science Collaboration, “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” Science 349 (August 2015): aac4716, doi:10.1126/science.aac4716.
5. The other two are predictability and falsifiability.
6. Michael Crichton, “Envrionmentalism as Religion” (lecture, Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, CA, September 15, 2003), http://www.pe.tamu.edu/DL_Program/graduate_seminar_series/Documents/MichaelCrichton_evironmentalism.pdf.
7. Trans-science refers to “questions that can be stated in scientific terms but that are…beyond the proficiency of science to answer.” See Alvin Weinberg, “Science and Trans-Science,” Science 177 (July 1972): 211; Alvin Weinberg, “Science and Trans-Science,” Minerva 10 (April 1972): 209–222.
8. Isaac Newton, Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World, trans. Andrew Motte, ed. Florian Cajori (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934), 544, 546.
9. Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).
10. Antony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

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