Monday, April 12, 2010
Take Peer Review, Please!
"Last fall, emails revealed that scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England and colleagues in the US and around the globe deliberately distorted data to support dire global warming scenarios and sought to block scholars with a different view from getting published. What does this scandal say generally about the intellectual habits and norms at our universities? ... Fashionable ideas, the convenience of professors, and the bureaucratic structures of academic life combine to encourage students and faculty alike to defend arguments for which they lack vital information. They pretend to knowledge they don't possess and invoke the authority of rank and status instead of reasoned debate. ... Only a handful of the nation's leading univeristies--Columbia and the University of Chicago at the forefront--insist that all undergraduates must read a common set of books and become conversant with the main ideas and events that shaped Western history and the larger world. ... But how can students who do not know the basics make intelligent decisions about the books they should read and the perspectives they should master? ... By far, though, the most important reason is that faculty generally reject the common sense idea that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn. This is consistent with the popular campus dogma that all morals and cultures are relative and that objective knowledge is impossible. ... Good students quickly absorb the curriculum's unwritten lesson---cutting corners and vigorously pressing strong but unsubstantiated opinions is the path to intellectual achievement. The production of scholarship also fosters intellectual vice. Take the peer review process, which because of its supposed impartiality and objectivity is intended to distinguish the work of scholars from that of journalists and commercial authors. ... But any competent scholar can determine an article's approach or analytic framework within the first few paragraphs. Scholars are likely to have colleagues and graduate students they support and whose careers they wish to advance. ... There is no check to prevent them from benefiting their friends by providing preferential treatment for their orientation and similarly punishing their enemies. That's because the peer review process violates a fundamental principle of fairness. We don't allow judges to be parties to a controversy they are adjudicating, and don't permit athletes to umpire games in which they are playing. In both cases the concern is that their interest in the outcome will bias their judgment and corrupt their integrity. So why should we expect scholars, especially operating under the cloak of anonymity, to fairly and honorably evalute the work of allies and rivals? ... Harvard University Press tells a reviewer the name of a book manuscript's author but withholds the reviewer's identity from the author. It would be hard to design a system that provided reviewers more opportunity to reward friends and punish enemies. ... Then there is the abuse of confidentiality and the overreliance on arguments from authority in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions. Owing to the premium the academy places on specialization, most university departments today contain several fields and within them several subfields. ... Often unable to form independent professional judgments--but unwilling to recuse themselves from important personnnel decisions---faculty members routinely rely on confidential letters of evaluation from scholars at other universities. Once again, these letters are written--and solicited by scholars who are irreducibly interested parties", my emphasis, Peter Berkowitz (PB) at the WSJ, 13 March 2010, link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704131404575117314262655160.html.
PB is at the Hoover Institution. I agree with PB. The Sixth Amendment gives us the right to confront our accusers. Why not apply it here? As bad as academic peer review is, CPA peer review is worse. It's a sham to protect the Big 87654 as is the current PCAOB. See William Aiken's 1982 comments at my 1 September 2008 post: