Peer review

Last week, I mentioned that Billy Dembski is all worked up over a paper which he claimed was a peer-reviewed rejection of the climate change. The publisher, the American Physical Science, attached a disclaimer to the piece, noting that it was in fact not peer reviewed. Dembski now defends his own claims by touting a letter from the author of the APS article, in which the author claims to have engaged in peer review:

The editors … invited me to submit a paper … explaining why I considered that the warming that might be expected from anthropogenic enrichment of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide might be significantly less than the IPCC imagines.

I very much appreciated this courteous offer, and submitted a paper. The commissioning editor referred it to his colleague, who subjected it to a thorough and competent scientific review. I was delighted to accede to all of the reviewer’s requests for revision (see the attached reconciliation sheet). Most revisions were intended to clarify for physicists who were not climatologists…

I had been invited to submit the paper; I had submitted it; an eminent Professor of Physics had then scientifically reviewed it in meticulous detail; I had revised it at all points requested, and in the manner requested

This is not peer review. Peer review involves multiple anonymous reviewers, and goes to technical details, not just clarity of the text. Indeed, clarity is rarely the goal of such review. This process reminds me of nothing so much as Michael Behe's embarrassing misunderstanding of the review his first book went through:

Q. Okay. Now you stated on Monday that Darwin's Black Box was also peer reviewed, right?

A. That's correct.

Q. You would agree that peer review for a book published in the Trade Press is not as rigorous as the peer review process for the leading scientific journals, would you?

A. No, I would not agree with that. The review process that the book went through is analogous to peer review in the literature, because the manuscript was sent out to scientists for their careful reading.

Furthermore, the book was sent out to more scientists than typically review a manuscript. In the typical case, a manuscript that's going to -- that is submitted for a publication in a scientific journal is reviewed just by two reviewers. My book was sent out to five reviewers.

Furthermore, they read it more carefully than most scientists read typical manuscripts that they get to review because they realized that this was a controversial topic. So I think, in fact, my book received much more scrutiny and much more review before publication than the great majority of scientific journal articles.

Q. And one of the peer reviewers you mentioned yesterday was a gentleman named Michael Atchison?

A. Yes, I think that's correct.

Q. Professor Behe, I've shown you an exhibit marked P-754, and that's an article titled -- or a writing titled Mustard Seeds by Dr. Michael Atchison?

A. Yes.

Q. Professor Behe, I'd like you to look at the first -- I'm sorry, the last paragraph on the first page, and I'm going to read this for the record. This is what Professor Atchison wrote. …

Q. "While I was identifying myself as a Christian in Philadelphia, a biochemist named Michael Behe at Lehigh University was writing a book on evolution. As a biochemist, Behe found the evidence far Darwinian evolution to be very thin. … Behe sent his completed manuscript to the Free Press publishers for consideration." That is your publisher of Darwin's Black Box, correct?

A. That's right.

Q. "The editor was not certain that this manuscript was a good risk for publication. There were clearly theological issues at hand, and he was under the impression that these issues would be poorly received by the scientific community. If the tenets of Darwinian evolution were completely accepted by science, who would be interested in buying the book?" The next paragraph says, "The editor shared his concerns with his wife. His wife was a student in my class." Again, this is consistent with your understanding of Mr. Atchison's -- Dr. Atchison's involvement?

A. Yes. As I said, I think the editor, his wife was in vet school and knew that she was taking biochemistry and so asked the professor in that class.

Q. "She advised her husband to give me a call. So unaware of all this, I received a phone call from the publisher in New York. We spent approximately ten minutes on the phone. After hearing a description of the work, I suggested that the editor should seriously consider publishing the manuscript.

I told him that the origin of life issue was still up in the air. It sounded like this Behe fellow might have some good ideas, although I could not be certain since I had never seen the manuscript. We hung up, and I never thought about it again, at least until two years later."

And then in the next session titled A Blessing Years Later, Dr. Atchison writes, "After some time, Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, the Free Press, 1996, was published. It became an instant best seller and was widely acclaimed in the news media.

It is currently in its 15th printing and over 40,000 copies have been sold. I heard about it, but could not remember if this was the same book that I received the call about from the publisher. Could it be?

In November 1998, I finally met Michael Behe when he visited Penn for a faculty outreach talk. He told me that, yes, indeed, it was his book that the publisher called me about. In fact, he said my comments were the deciding factor in convincing the publisher to go ahead with the book. Interesting, I thought."

You did meet Dr. Atchison, correct?

A. Yes, later, I did, yes.

Q. And is this your understanding of the kind of peer review Dr. Atchison did of your book?

A. No, it wasn't. I thought he had received a copy of the manuscript and went through it. So -- but -- so, yes, I was under a different impression.

Q. You have no basis by which to dispute this account in this document, correct, Professor Behe?

A. My understanding is different from what is given in this account.

Q. And you did see some comments from some of your other reviewers, is that right?

A. That's correct.

Q. And they confirmed that you hadn't made any errors in the biochemistry, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. But they were reluctant or disagreed about intelligent design, correct?

A. Several were, yes, uh-huh.

In short, Behe believed Atchison reviewed the book in detail, when he actually just looked at it for 10 minutes. Other reviewers felt that the book's conclusions didn't follow from the data presented (grounds to call for a paper's rejection or heavy revision in scientific publishing). For IDolators, that's peer review. In science, it just isn't. If the deniers want to believe that's what counts as peer review, they're just as wrong.

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According to the transcript, Atchison never even saw the book.

We spent approximately ten minutes on the phone. After hearing a description of the work, I suggested that the editor should seriously consider publishing the manuscript.

I suppose people who haven't done their research recruiting others who have not read their books is a "peer" review of sorts...

By Jason Failes (not verified) on 22 Jul 2008 #permalink

What do the following have in common?

Chaos theory (Feigenbaum), radioimmunoassay (Yalow), the invention of the laser (Maiman), the falsification of black hole evaporation (Hawking) the sequential formation of the Hawaiian Islands (Wilson), the first generally accepted theory of low-temperature solid-state physics (Bardeen)

These papers (and probably many others of equal import that could be adduced) were either initially or finally rejected by leading peer-reviewed scientific journals. Maybe it should be, Peer Review:

"...when your grants and papers are rejected because some stupid reviewer rejected them for dogmatic adherence to old ideas."(Günter Blobel, Noble Laureate, for the discovery that proteins have intrinsic signals that govern their transport and localization in the cell, apparently also with some experience with the peer review process)

Regardless of whether of Behe's ideas have any merit or not, do you really want lawyers and judges deciding what is science and what is not? Cordially,

Brian: Lawyers and judges make those assessments based on expert testimony from scientific peers. And Behe's peers want nothing to do with his ideas.

Peer review isn't perfect, but it's worth noting that most papers are rejected initially, and reviewers' comments improve them. Pointing to those initial rejections as evidence of flaws in peer review misunderstands the process.

Thanks for taking the time to reply

Some of those papers were not just rejected initially, but finally. But what was the process for Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, and even Einstein? There was obviously no such process for them such as exists today. How would it even be possible to have "peer review" for someone like an Einstein? "Peer Review", if there even is such a thing, may weed out crackpot theories, but in the rare cases where the Einstein does come along you have, as Frank Tipler put it, "a scientific social system in which intellectual pygmies are standing in judgment of giants."
As for Behe's peers wanting nothing to do with his ideas, that may be the case. Nevertheless, his thesis that the origin of IC structures has not been explained by science served as the impetus for Thornhill and Ussery to develop a scientific classification that did not exist before; a scientific classification that's right there in the peer reviewed literature, for all that it's worth.


Peer review takes many forms, and all of those scientists' work was reviewed by their peers. And Einstein certainly published work in peer reviewed journals, so I'm not sure what you're getting at there.

As for Behe, it's hardly a stirring endorsement to know that a new taxonomy of nonscience had to be invented to fully explore the degree to which he was wrong.

This doesn't apply to Behe, but it *might* excuse Dembski to note that mathematical peer review usually *does* consist of just one referee.

The three papers of Einstein's that were published in 1905 on special relativity, photons, and statistical mechanics were not sent to referees. The editor(s) of Annalen der Physik simply made the decision to publish the papers, which was not unusual for that time.