Science education

Peer-review: A New Signature of Quack Science

Crackpot scientists are very efficient in taking a scientific idea and distorting it beyond recognition. A recent victim is the peer review process.

One of the trademarks of science is the strict requirement of accuracy in publishing results of investigation. Scientists screen other scientists’ work to make sure that it is legitimate and accurate before allowing it to be published in a professional journal. This process has come to be known as peer-review. The higher the standards of reviewing, the more respected the journal. Peer-review makes scientific journals different from popular — best selling — books and magazines, whose primary criterion for publication is to attract as many readers as possible.

Scientific peer-review not only blocks results of miscalculations or careless experiments, but  filters crackpot ideas, which are usually put forth by outsiders who think that they can undermine relativity without knowing much about it, or cosmology without understanding the technical details of the current theory.

For decades, pseudoscientists were content with publishing their nonsense in trade books — as opposed to textbooks where sample chapter are reviewed by peers, who recommend for or against publication — and, more recently, on blogs. As the content of the books and blogs came under the scrutiny of scientists and their inaccuracy and outright fallaciousness were exposed, pseudoscientists began to tailor the cosmetics of their discipline to the appearance of science. Peer-review process stood out as a necessary mascara!

With the immense popularity of pseudoscience among the illiterate public — which includes CEOs of publishing companies — and the primacy of profit making, some otherwise reputable publishers saw a financial opportunity for providing the outlet for the dissemination of pseudoscience peer-reviewed by pseudoscientists. The word “peer-reviewed” gives a (false) legitimacy to published articles and beguiles their readers into believing that their contents are as trustworthy as scientific articles. Now pseudoscientists are blaring the word “peer review” for every such article or journal so much so that it has now become a signature of pseudoscience:

If an author/publisher keeps insisting that their articles are “peer-reviewed,” chances are that the articles are quack science!

This is because you rarely hear the word in the scientific literature: real scientific articles are peer-reviewed by default! No advertisement is necessary.

To evaluate the rigor of a journal’s peer-review process, look at the qualification, background, and the institutional affiliation of the editors of the journal. Take Nuclear Physics B, a journal published by Elsevier, a leading scientific publisher. The website of the journal describes it as being devoted to the specific field of high energy physics (including theory, phenomenology, and experiments). Its editorial board consists of many notable physicists specialized in the specific fields of high energy physics. For example, under High Energy Physics-Theory you find three editors: L. Rastelli from Stony Brook University, S. Stieberger from Max Planck Institute for Physics, and H. Verlinde from Princeton University. The background of all these editors, their affiliation, and their list of publications are publicly available, and all of the editors are among top researchers and educators only in theoretical high energy physics — nothing else, not atomic, or quantum, or molecular physics and certainly not in “quantum dynamical psychology!”

The same Elsevier started a journal in 2005 called Explore, devoted to “science and healing.” The very subtitle of the journal exposes its ludicrousness. How can a journal publish healing and science — not medical science, health science, or hygiene science, but science, period — at the same time? As a cursory look at the articles available online demonstrates, speculations about consciousness and cosmology, spiritual phenomena and quantum non-locality, “scientific” investigation of reincarnation, etc., are legitimate candidates for publication.

The editorial board of Explore says it all! Larry Dossey, the Executive Editor, is the author of such books as The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape our Lives and Prayer is Good Medicine. Benjamin Kligler is one of the Coeditors-in-Chief. He boasts his certification in Ericksonian Hypnotherapy and acupuncture. Dean Radin is the other Coeditor-in-Chief. He is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, whose mission is to support individual and collective transformation through consciousness research by exploring phenomena that “do not necessarily fit conventional scientific models.” He regularly presents papers in the annual meetings of Parapsychological Association (PA) and the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). PA, according to its website, is “a professional organization … engaged in the study of psi (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition.” SSE boasts peer-reviewed (what else?) research on consciousness, physics, alternative energy, healing, and more. SSE has provided a critical forum for sharing original research into … unconventional topics that often cross mainstream boundaries!

When the executive editor himself publishes books on “knowing the future” and the “healing power of prayer;” and when coeditors-in-chief engage in the exploration of phenomena that do not necessarily fit conventional scientific models and do research on  telepathy and psychic healing, what is the purpose of “peer-review?”

If there is no criterion for rejecting the very notion of “knowing the future,” “healing power of prayer,” or “psychic healing,” how can any other nonsense be rejected in the “peer review” process?

There are many other venues for publishing “peer-reviewed” pseudoscience (see this for a comprehensive list). For example, NeuroQuantology, a venue in which Deepak Chopra has disseminated some of his ideas, is “an interdisciplinary journal of neuroscience and quantum physics.” The affiliation of Sultan Tarlaci, its founder and Editor-in-Chief, reads “Dept of Neurology, Assoc. Prof. Editor-In-Chief NeuroQuantology, Turkey.” The institution to which the “Dept of Neurology” belongs is not mentioned! A search brings up his affiliation in ResearchGate, in which his institution is listed as Sifa University in Izmir, Turkey. While he seems to have an MD, his training is claimed to be as diverse as physiology, phycology (the study of algae), and neuroscience. He also publishes about quantum physics! Going through the only list of the faculty at Sifa University, I couldn’t locate his name in any of the listed departments!

The Advisory and Editorial Board lists individuals

  • who cannot be found in the departments/schools to which they are claimed to belong: Alfredo Pereira, Burak Erdeniz, Attila Grandpierre, Donald Mender, Michael B. Mensky, Subhash Kak;
  • who are found in departments unrelated to neurology or physics: Diana Gasparyan and Tatyana Petrovna Lifintseva are in humanities, Michael Persinger is in psychology and arts, Kemal Koc (see page 29) is in the college of education;
  • who belong to departments that don’t seem to exist. Gustav Bernroider is an example. Here are all the departments of the University of Salzburg (as you can see there is no department of Ecology and Evolution). Here are all the departments in the Faculty of Natural Sciences (all links take you to the respective departments where you can find a list of members in that department, EXCEPT Ecology and Evolution which has only a link to a botanical garden);
  • who seem to be “free-lance researchers:” Fred H. Thaheld, who appears to be a mechanical engineer (also see here) and Greg P. Hodes, who simply holds a PhD (in philosophy) from University of Kansas.

Not a single member of the Advisory and Editorial Board of NeuroQuantology has a background in neurology or quantum physics, the two main fields in which NeuroQuantology claims to publish!

I have cited only two examples of “peer-reviewed” journals that publish pseudoscience. Nevertheless, these two are typical of all pseudoscientific journals and sites: The editors are pseudoscientists, the advisory board members are  pseudoscientists, and the “peers” who “review” articles are pseudoscientists.

In a publishing field in which prayer, telepathy, psychic phenomena, clairvoyance, reincarnation, parapsychology, all branches of alternative medicine, and precognition are fair games, what gets filtered out in the “peer-review” process?

What is your reaction?

In Love
Not Sure

You may also like

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *