A NASA spokesperson has dismissed a major critique of the Science arsenic bug paper based not on the criticism’s merits, but on its venue — it appeared in a blog rather than a peer-reviewed journal. Apparently ideas are valid (or not) based not on their content, or even the reputation of the author, but on where they’re published.
NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown expressed these rather anti-empirical notions in a CBC News story about the substantive and detailed reservations about the Science paper raised by University of British Columbia researcher Rosie Redfield in her blog, which I covered here night before last. As I noted then, Redfield’s criticisms were quickly echoed by other qualified researchers. But Brown sets aside Redfield’s critique without even referring to its substance or merits.
From “NASA’s arsenic microbe science slammed,” at CBC News:
When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.
This is a call to pre-Enlighentment thinking. Brown is telling us to judge utterances not by their content, not even by the integrity, reputation, and experience of the individuals who deliver them, but by whether they’re delivered from the proper place in the proper building — in pre-Enlightenment days, the Church of Rome; in Brown’s post-arsenic days, the Church of the Peer-reviewed Journal.
It’s an extraordinary dismissal. Rosie Redfield is a full-bore member of the academy and a researcher in the field under question. She is — to extend the metaphor — a priest. But though Redfield wears the proper robes, Brown wants to dismiss her because she’s not standing on the proper altar.
Even the best peer-reviewed journals make mistakes. Hype can take over. Groupthink can rule. People screw up. And sometimes journals defend mistakes by refusing to publish sharp critiques of them. All this stuff happens, and not just once in a blue moon. Peer review — and especially so in the sort of artificially and arbitrarily constricted sense that Brown gives it here.
What he fails to see or refuses to acknowledge is that Rosie Redfield is a peer, and her blog is peer review. NASA has bungled its presentation of this paper from start to finish. It makes worse by trying to dismiss critiques this way. This is the wrong stuff.
PS later Tue Dec 7: Grant Jacobs has a similar reaction to NASA’s idea of free and open exchange of ideas, as does Deepak Singh. Texas A&M researcher Jim Hu adds some more peer review, most substantially here. And the Guardian has a good story tracker on the issue where they’re posting updates as well.
Image: The right stuff: Astronaut John Glenn relaxes aboard the USS Noa after being recovered from the Atlantic near Grand Turk Island after his historic Mercury flight, 1962. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20 of that year in his “Friendship 7” capsule. The Noa picked him up 21 minutes after impact.
Image and caption courtesy NASA