One of my favourite parables is that of the Emperors New Clothes. Written in the 1800’s by Hans Christian Andersen, it has never been more apt than today. For those not familiar it involves a vain Emperor who likes to have a constant stream of new cloths to wear.
Two swindlers arrive in town with claims they can weave a magic gown. It has wonderful rich colours and fine fabric but this was only visible to wise folk. People who were foolish or not fit for their position would not be able to see the gown – it would be invisible to them.
Of course word spread of these magic clothes and everyone from the Emperor down could “see” this wondrous piece, as they did not want to appear foolish.
All except for one small boy who had not heard the tale. Whilst the Emperor was parading down the main street showing off his new clothes to the populace the boy called out “he hasn’t got anything on”.
Today we are incessantly told that only “wise” people know what is best for us. Anyone who is not sufficiently educated is not supposed to have an opinion. This applies in a variety of fields including health.
Groups like the “Friends Of Science” feel that peer reviewed articles are the only ones that matter. Opinions on how to be healthy that are not “peer reviewed” are not worthy!
Brendan O’Neill writing in The Australian has brilliantly tackled the morphing of the term peer review from what it is, to being something it is not, namely a mark of superiority. In turn it is then used as a way of seeking to silence dissent.
Peer review only means that a paper has been read by others who hold a similar qualification and been deemed suitable for publication. It does not in any way mean that the findings of the paper are “correct” or that it won’t be disproved next week even if it is “correct”.
It is an arcane academic publishing ritual, which has no relevance to everyday discussions. You can have an opinion about anything you like. It does not need peer review for you to be able to express it. Whether it is “right” or “wrong” is beside the point. It is an opinion and it is your opinion.
Much is made of evidence-based medicine. It is not hard to find evidence for just about anything. Furthermore many “peer reviewed” articles are meaningless. This is quite aside the problems of ghost writing, suppression of negative studies, twisting of statistics, industry bias in papers , retractions and the growing issue of falsified research.
All peer reviewed.
Just today I got an email informing me that if I submit a manuscript to a particular journal there is a rapid publication process with 11 days from submission to first editorial decision – including peer review! After this it is 24 days from editorial acceptance to publication!
On the other side of the coin, the fact that something has not been subject to a “peer reviewed paper” does not mean it is not true either.
To quote Brendan O’Neill “Much peer review involves little more than well-connected academics getting people they know or mates who owe them a favour to sign off on their latest bit of work.”
He adds that it is used as a form of intellectual licence so those with it, can see themselves as superior to those without it. As with the Emperors New Clothes, only those with “peer review status” are able to see the glorious robes of the Emperor.
Attempts by experts to silence dissent is dangerous. Experts will generally be proved wrong. The more dogmatically people cling to an “expert opinion”, the more suspicious I become.
I will give the final word to blogger Steven Goddard who wrote this brilliant piece, which is reproduced here.
“New Evidence that the Emperor did have clothing.
For centuries it was believed that the Emperor had no clothing, but new research indicates that this was based on the testimony of one small child, who had no background in textiles or even retail clothing sales. He also had no formal education in clothing and had never published anything about fashion in a peer-reviewed journal.
Furthermore, it has been discovered that more than 97% of the experts at the time agreed that the emperor had clothing. We can therefore safely conclude that the emperor was well clothed, and that the child was not competent to discuss his wardrobe.”