Thursday 5 August 2010

Peer review, The Spirit Level and the appeal to authority

Brendan O'Neil has written a great piece at Spiked on the subject of peer review (with a few quotes from me). The article was inspired by the ongoing debate about The Spirit Level, and its authors attempt to confine it to peer reviewed journals.

The irony is that the authors owe their success in spreading their political message to writing a book for the mass market. This book was not peer-reviewed (obviously - although it refers to peer-reviewed studies, as mine does), and many of the statements they have made in the mainstream media would never get past peer review. Having engaged with the real world, they seem keen to withdraw to the confines of academia at the first sign of trouble.

Since it was published last year, The Spirit Level – Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s book on why equal societies do better than unequal ones – has become a sparkplug for heated, testy debate. Not one, not two, but three pamphlet-length critiques of it have been published, while others have rushed to man the book’s intellectual barricades (‘This book’s inconvenient truths must be faced’, said a Guardian editorial).

Yet now Pickett and Wilkinson have imposed an extraordinary condition on future debate about their book. Because much of the criticism of The Spirit Level has consisted of ‘unsubstantiated claims made for political purposes’ (in their view), ‘all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed journals’, they decree.

Wow. In one fell swoop they have painted any criticism of their book that appears in non-peer-reviewed journals as somehow illegitimate. They snootily say that ‘none of [the] critiques are peer-reviewed’ and announce that from now on they’ll only engage in discussions that ‘take place in peer-reviewed journals’. So any peep of a critique that appears in a newspaper, a book published by a publishing house that doesn’t do peer review, a non-academic magazine, an online magazine, a blog or a radio show – never mind those criticisms aired in sweaty seminar rooms, bars or on park benches – is unworthy because it hasn’t been stamped with that modern-day mark of decency, that indicator of seriousness, that licence which proves you’re a Person Worth Listening To: the two magic words ‘Peer Reviewed.’

This is not to say that peer review isn't important. It is clearly better than the alternative. The problem, as Brendan says, is more to do with public perception and the inclination of some researchers to appeal to authority.

Being peer-reviewed no longer simply means that you wrote an academic report that was considered by other academics to be serious enough for publication – it means you possess the truth, Pure Knowledge, elevated insights that are not available to mere mortals who have not been PR’d...

To be peer-reviewed is to have the right to speak publicly on important matters – to be non-peer-reviewed makes you immediately untrustworthy, a bit of an intellectual charlatan, possibly even suspect in your motives.

The Spirit Level provides a useful example here. It owes much of its success to the simplicity of its evidence, but this simplicity—and the fact that all the data used are publicly available—makes it easy for anybody to check. It doesn't require a PhD in social epidemiology to take data from the United Nations website and plot it on a graph. And, as I show in my most recent book, the evidence simply doesn't stand up (and, if you want to appeal to authority, several distinguished professors have said the same thing).

Remember, we're not talking nuclear physics here. We're talking about the most basic statistical fact-checking of the most basic type of epidemiological study. If a scientist tells me there are black holes in the Universe I'm happy to take his word for it. If a social epidemiologist tells me that life expectancy is higher in Cuba than it is in America, I'm going to check it. And if she's wrong I'm going to say so.

As Brendan concludes:

It is ironic that Pickett and Wilkinson, so very keen on the idea of equality, don’t like the idea of an equal right to speak and critique. In this area of life, their attitude is: ‘If you’ve been peer-reviewed, let’s talk. If not? Screw you.’

Go read.


More Spirit Level-related discussion at The Taxpayers' Alliance. There is also an exhaustive list of links covering the debate of the last month on the right-hand side of The Spirit Level Delusion website.


Anon1 said...

Chris, peer review these days, particularly in Public Health, doesn’t count for too much (see Siegel’s latest thread and comments). Peer review does not help when peers – those presenting papers and those doing the review - all suffer the same incompetence and delusional ideology. The "agenda-correct" trash (i.e., propaganda) that gets through "peer review" is staggering.

DaveA said...

There is something deeply neurotic about the "liberal" left. Admittedly I am the type of person who crosses the road metaphorically for a fight, wanting to debate matters. However their unwillingness to engage with anyone who has the temerity to disagree is a worry.

At a broader context with 13 years of Labour you got all the cheap name calling and ad homims. Immigration = racist, women's right's = misogynsist, EU = Little Englander.

I had a comment deleted from the BMJ Tobacco Control Forum for saying that the "denormalisation" of smokers is akin to the denormlisation of African Americans, Hispanics, and gays. More will be done about that by me.

I do not think the liberal, left need peer review they need a psychiatrist.

Anon1 said...

I do not think the liberal, left need peer review they need a psychiatrist.

Sorry, Dave, but there can be a serious problem here to :) You might find the following link of interest.

NOTE: The CCHR is a scientology-dominated organization. However, the brief historical account (of what is materialist ideology) provided in the above link is reasonable and useful, i.e., not scientology-affected, and provides in one presentation a considerable connection of historical insights. There are a [small] number of sections that are scientology-oriented. However, these do not appear in the presentation – there is no video screen for those sections. You need to use the right-arrow towards the bottom of the screen to get to the next section. The scientology conclusion that it is psychiatrists peculiarly that have a “master plan” is arguable. I think the plan is far more general in which psychiatry plays its sickly role. It is unfortunate that it is scientology that has produced this well-put-together historical account in that there may be some that will discount the information simply because it is presented by scientology. (I’m not a scientologist, by the way).

Triakins said...

While insisting on peer review as a prerequisite for engaging in any kind of discussion on the merits of one's research does indeed indicate an old-fashioned ivory tower obscurantism of the worst kind, I can certainly symphatize with Wilkinson and Pickett's interest in not having to respond to tiresome, superficial remarks such as the ones made in Brendan O'Neill's piece.

I understand that the article in Spiked is primarily interested in the peer review question itself, but the frankly ludicruous suggestion that vital public health variables are less influenced by structural factors such as inequality than by excessive Oprah Winfrey-induced introspection does make one wonder whether O'Neill really has anything worthwile (peer-reviewed or not) to contribute to the discussion.

Moreover, O'Neill appears to simply take for granted the assumption that problematizing "plenty, growth, aspiration" as Wilkinson does is inherently bad. He offers no arguments whatsoever in support of the idea that there's something necessarily wrong about portraying economic growth as having a negative impact on modern society; and one is thus more or less forced to ascribe this to the some kind of ideological preferences beyond the limits of rational debate.

Whatever the limitations of peer reviewing, one would hope that such a process leads to slightly more meaningful contributions to the discussion than the ones hinted at in O'Neill's fretful article. There's always going to be an awful lot of mere opinions being generated by controversial books like The Spirit Level, and one mustn't expect Wilkinson and Pickett to deal with all that noise.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Brendan doesn't make the case for why aspiration, plenty and growth are not inherently bad in this particular article, but he and others at Spiked have done so many times in the past. I think that's more to do with sticking to the subject in a short article than anything else.

On the subject of mental illness, America's therapy culture surely does play an important role since all figures for mental disorders are self-reported. It is reasonable to expect rates to be higher in places where (a) people are not ashamed to admit they have certain symptoms, (b) are aware of the various disorders to begin with, and (c) have a large psychiatric and pharmaceutical industry actively encouraging people to diagnose themselves with a broader and broader range of supposed disorders.

As for the inequality hypothesis, the evidence points to Scandinavian countries having very similar rates of mental disorder as the USA. This is never mentioned in The Spirit Level. Indeed, when they fail to find a relationship between inequality and mental health when looking at US states, they say wouldn't expect to find one between mental health doesn't have a social gradient. This caveat is forgotten when they find a 'link' between countries (using very selective data) and it is an inconsistency has attracted surprisingly little attention.

Anonymous said...

The link to the Spirit Level Delusion website in the update at the bottom of this post doesn't seem to work.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Cheers. Fixed.

Sugarcane said...

Interesting that the peer-review process comes under attack when it doesn't suit a particular agenda. How funny that this kind of debate is surrounding climate change and evolutionary theory - 2 hot topics that divide people on fundamental levels of beliefs.

Whenever scientific findings go against the ruling ideology (which is increasingly often these days), it's always the scientific process that comes under attack.

Why aren't you attacking the peer-review work in atomic theory? Plate tectonics? Micro Biology? Or do you think it's only sociology that the peer-review process does not work for?

Do you all understand what the peer-review process has helped man-kind achieve over the years? An understanding of the world that we simply wouldn't have without it. The peer-review system is by no means perfect, but it adds more levels of verification to research that mere opinion cannot compete with.

Much of the technologies we enjoy in our lives are built upon scientific enquiry scrutinised by the scientific process. You're having no problems whatsoever enjoying the benefits of that process in your every day lives, right now in fact, reading this on your computer.

At the end of the day, this scientist says it best:

Science, it works, bitches.

It's not a perfect system, but it's better than not having it. Have you submitted your work for peer-review?

Christopher Snowdon said...


Neither Brendan nor I were attacking the peer-review system. Rather we were criticising Wilkinson and Pickett's desire to close off debate on a subject which, if it can be deemed scientific at all, is as far from being atomic theory as you can get. Wilkinson and Pickett are political campaigners and their efforts to portray their political ideas as having been in some way 'approved' by science is fallacious, unscientific and untrue.