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Of the Truth of Science, Peer Review and Mememan

26 November 2012, 13:26

Given the level of misunderstanding my previous thoughts created in some of the responders, I'll revise my writing style. Hope it works.

Peer Review

Reasons for singling out MyNews24 contributor Mememan:

I respect what he says because:

  • he understands and writes well about science - I liked his image of how fast you had to drive to keep up with cd's filling with data that the SKA will produce.

  • He shed his religion

His response to my analysis of the “truths” of Science was more or less “hasn't he heard of peer review?” Well, yes, I have. He did mean more I am sure, something like:

“Scientists aren't dumb. Peer review, where those who know and understand the field of work “review” scientists' work developed to prevent the kind of problems you raise with the way science is done.”

My logic says there are too many problems with peer review:

  • when scientist and reviewer start with the same assumptions and methodology, peer review amounts to little more than a check on whether the prevailing protocols are followed. So “short cuts” or mistakes could be found out; fraud being a bit more tricky, but the broader truth is ignored.

  • Peer review does not resolve differences between scientific findings on the same subject

  • If there is a problem is, as I suggest, with the very assumptions, what I referred to as the myths and the conceptual and value frameworks of science, then peer review means little.

  • Similarly the problems that arise by narrowing down context and variables in the manner required and allowed by scientific methodology will not be uncovered by peer review.

  • I have no confidence in the diligence required to a make peer review work consistently. Not because of ill-will. Just because it's highly unlikely that other scientists have time or resources or inclination to want to check everything in the detail it requires that every scientist produces. At best a colleague or two and a supervisor make sure the scientist is doing things right Maybe, if the work gets published or found during research then it could get challenged by others if they get the inclination to do this..

So, until I am shown otherwise, as a counter to my arguments, “Peer Review” does not add up to much.

You can google “peer reivew” if you want to see what other people think. One of the concerns raised is just how much correct stuff is rejected in the peer review process.

Example

For those who want to go on reading, let me give an example of what I am talking about. There is a religious bit at the end to reward perseverance.

[The names of the people and institutions are not important. But googling will show it is a real example.]

A sports scientist did thorough tests which required a trained cyclist to ride a stationary bicycle for two hours under with only one variable. The cyclist hydrated during the ride “on demand” using thirst as an indicator in one test. In the second he drank to a predetermined schedule designed to replace liquid lost through exercise. [My apologies for what I left out in getting to the essence of this work).

The context of the test includes evidence of illness (hypernatraemia), serious to the point of death among people doing endurance exercise, including 42,2 km marathon running, due to maybe to over-drinking. So its not a trivial exercise. Also part of the context is an influential view is that runners should drink to a plan to replace liquids lost and so prevent dehydration.

The finding was that drinking to thirst didn't affect performance. So this way of hydrating would would lessen the risk of hypernatraemia. And as the scientist anecdotally remarked: you don't need to teach dogs to drink. They know when they need to.

I'm sure that work was peer reviewed. I am sure that every single step required by the scientific protocols was followed.

But if looked at from outside its confines, no matter how valid, it misses the broader “truth”. For example, if the test lasted longer than two hours, as standard marathons do for most runners. The ones that died mostly likely came from the category of 4 or longer hour of runners. Maybe they even drank to what they perceived as their thirst.

If we analyse “thirst” conceptually we will soon enough understand that thirst is reactive. You only get thirsty when you have a water deficit. If you stop, as a dog would, drink pant and recover before going on, then fine. But people don't. They push on, some for days. Thirst is easily over-riden and confused by the quest for and in the stress of performance.

There is no obligation by the scientific method or on the peer reviewer to consider these other contexts, conceptual issues or variables.

I used this example because it also shows a moral dimension to scientific work. In South Africa (other places too of course,) many thousands of people do endurance things for much longer than 2 hours in our warm to hot environment: from the Comrades Marathon to hiking to cycling and rave ( it's got a new name I'm sure) parties.

The conclusion that we should drink to thirst could easily lead to an increase in problems resulting from dehydration. Maybe not death but there are other consequences including just plain failure to make it to the end on time. And if you are a miner working deep underground it could also seriously impact on production.

Religion

I can't help a bit of provocation. The religious dimension of the foregoing is this.

Mememan escaped his religion. He is now a self-confessed atheist, I think. But one could rightfully ask: hasn't he kept the blind faith which drove the religious behaviours he rebelled against?

Doesn't he in believing in science, its methods and peer review as much as he does, believe in something which might not exactly exist in the perfect way he believes it to be?

And isn't that the activity that he rails against so often in religious institutions and against the religious contributors to this forum.

Conclusion

You should see by now that I don't believe that human institutions, religious, scientific, political or whatever are perfect. I know they are not.

Actually they take the work of all of us to keep them going in the right direction.

In my previous article I suggested a couple of ways of improving science so that it didn't kill or harm quite so many people, poison and pollute quite so much of the planet we share and that it didn't mortgage so much of the future.

They still stand. But in the interest of finding the truth I am quite happy to admit that I am wrong if evidence shows my line not to be the bottom.

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.
 

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