The problem with peer review as practised by creationists, is that the peer reviewers are creationists.
This is a cheap shot, I know, but I don’t mean it like that – not entirely, anyway. A more subtle point is that there aren’t a lot of so-called creation scientists, and they are spread out over widely disparate fields. Even if we take them all to be reputable and honest, who among them is qualified to properly review the work of the rest?
Consider Nathaniel Jeanson’s December 2013 Answers Research Journal article on mitochondrial genetics. Jeanson got his PhD for adult stem cell work, but his work for the ICR has been related to the genetics that supposedly underlie baraminology. My own post on the paper lists only a fraction of the litany of errors – both editorial and scientific – that should really have been picked up prior to publication. Jeanson lists the following acknowledgements:
Special thanks to Daryl Robbins for Python scripting and database creation. Additional thanks to Paul Nelson and Steve Hopper for stimulating and helpful discussions. Thanks to Jeff Tomkins, Brian Thomas, Frank Sherwin, Robert Carter, Matthew Cserháti, and several other reviewers for helpful comments and criticisms.
Peer review failed this paper, but how?
In the July 2014 edition of the ICR’s newsletter Acts & Facts Jason Lisle has an article titled “The Biblical Basis for Peer Review.” It contains lots of Proverbs references that we wont get into, but it also includes the following description of how the process is supposed to go:
To that end, a scientist will write a paper explaining his or her experiment, observations, reasoning, and conclusions, and will then submit that paper for publication in a technical science journal. The journal content editor forwards the paper to several experts—usually people with Ph.D.s in relevant fields—and asks for their assessment. The reviewers examine the article carefully, looking for factual errors, unsupported claims, logical fallacies, and scientific clarity, and give feedback to the journal editor. The editor then passes along any suggested changes to the author, who adjusts his or her paper accordingly.
Ignoring the credentialism, the “relevant fields” part is important here. With each person seemingly heading off in their own direction there aren’t going to be a lot of their peers in fields relevant enough to really catch every error. When Lisle himself writes about his anisotropic synchrony convention, how many of his fellow creationists can follow along?
Of course, as a counterpoint it seems that in the late 1990’s there were plenty of people prepared to pick apart D. Russell Humphreys’ Starlight and Time, a book which tried to solve the same problem as Lisle’s ASC. As you can see from the excerpts I’ve given, which I ran into the other day down a rabbit hole somewhere, this got quite heated. You can also see that Humphreys, at least, is quite well described by the following paragraph from Lisle’s article:
Unfortunately, we live in an age where many people do not want to be held accountable to anyone or anything. They want to live autonomously as a god unto themselves, do not want to be corrected, and will make excuses for why they don’t need to be corrected. It’s an ironic truth that those who are the most resistant to peer review are those who most desperately need it. People who humbly embrace correction are quick to correct their mistakes and therefore need far less correction in the future (Proverbs 9:9). The stubborn are slow to be corrected, and their errors continue (Proverbs 29:1).
Some creationists are more receptive to correction than others, but there is no shortage of those that fall afoul of those verses.
Peer review has it’s flaws, Lisle acknowledges, but he contends that it is still useful – because it’s “biblical”:
As one example, a naysayer might point out that peer-review is not perfect and at times fails to result in an accurate paper, “so why bother with it?” Since human beings are prone to error, any process involving them will occasionally fail. Peer-review is no exception, particularly with journal editors who scoff at Scripture. Likewise, our court system sometimes fails to give the correct verdict. But should we do away with courts? The system isn’t perfect because people aren’t perfect, but the system is good because it is biblical.
You will note the dig at secular journals “who scoff at Scripture,” which Lisle asserts are more prone to error than creationists. But that can’t deflect from the Jeanson paper, which is hardly the only example of its kind. Take a look at those acknowledgements again: of those names that you recognise, how many of them are work in what you would call a “relevant field”? This is my pet theory: even if young-Earth creationism really was on to something, and the underlying principles were sound, they would still be prone to spouting nonsense – and they wouldn’t even know, because who else can check?
What should they do about this? They could cry persecution, and that nobody gives them any money, but that won’t actually help. Alternatively they could re-evaluate their efforts, and rather than wandering off in different directions they could keep to the basics so they can check each others’ notes, in the hope of maybe producing something that could be mistaken for quality in a poor light (and make my job a bit harder to boot). It’s their decision.
Lisle concludes with this interesting paragraph:
Be cautious of “Lone Ranger” creationists—those people who proclaim unverified pet “theories” and who resist peer review. God alone is above criticism. Also be discerning of articles that are not peer reviewed, such as many that appear on the Internet. It’s not that such articles are necessarily wrong, but their reliability is in question. Of course, we should be discerning in all things. Content editors are also not infallible—even peer-reviewed articles are sometimes wrong, and editors sometimes will mistakenly reject a paper that has merit. Therefore, let us test all things against the infallible standard of God’s Word and ask God to give us all a teachable spirit.
This could be taken as a condemnation of the cottage industry of small creationist blogs and “apologetics ministries” that dot the internet, and not without good reason: they’re pretty terrible. But what should their readers refer to instead? It’s heavily implied throughout that the ICR’s own articles are peer reviewed, and as it happens we actually got to see part of the editorial process of a Creation Science Update back in January. You can make up your own opinion about whether or not that counts.
What do we make of all this? The ICR is in favour of peer review, and responding positively to criticism, but at the same time creationists don’t seem to be universally great at either of them. Peer review might be vaguely in keeping with some comments in the book of Proverbs, but that doesn’t mean that they way it is implemented is necessarily good. And then there’s my contention that there is something rotten in creation science that goes beyond the inherent wrongness of young-Earth creationism.