Ignoramuses at Elsevier and their Ignorant Advisers
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/04/10
Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens
(Even the gods are helpless in the face of stupidity)
—– Friedrich Schiller
Laughter would be as fitting as tears over Elsevier’s contortions in setting out to destroy the raison d’être of Medical Hypotheses without admitting to it. These people who control much scientific publishing have not the slightest understanding of the nature of science and how it progresses or regresses. What they do understand is that their profits depend on a cozy relationship with the powers that be, hence they act as shills for drug companies by publishing fake “medical” journals [“Elsevier published 6 fake journals”]. But publishing anything that questions the prevailing orthodoxy is taboo when it offends mainstream Pooh-Bahs.
Why did David Horrobin found the journal Medical Hypotheses? Why has its value been attested by innumerable people — many established scientists who could not have their best ideas published elsewhere, bystanders sending comments on stories about Elsevier-Gate, members of the Editorial Board, and others?
Anyone with even the most superficial acquaintance with the history of science and the work of philosophers and sociologists of science recognizes as axiomatic that peer review is inevitably informed by the prevailing paradigm. In other words, research proposals and manuscripts for publication are judged for their plausibility on the basis of what is already supposed to be known. Anything that doesn’t question the contemporary consensus sails through the process, even as it may never be found worthy of citation by others (most published scientific articles are never cited, except by their own authors). Anything that contradicts what the prevailing consensus imagines to be true is likely to be rejected.
In hindsight, but only in hindsight, universally lauded are the ideas that overturned a prevailing consensus.
Human knowledge and human lack of knowledge have been nicely described as
1. the known (= thought to be known);
2. the known unknown: Gaps in what’s thought to be known, and presumed to exist — so long as what’s thought to be known really is known;
3. the unknown unknown, from which serendipity occasionally releases intellectual lightning strikes of immense significance for the expansion of human understanding.
Peer review serves to guard against the publication of such intellectual lighting strikes, embryonic scientific revolutions.
In that light, consider the absurdity of Elsevier’s attempted justification for its intended changes for Medical Hypotheses:
The proposed new arrangement should ensure “that potentially controversial articles receive especially careful review”! . . . “reviewers would only judge the ‘premise, originality, and plausibility’ of hypotheses submitted”! (“May deadline set for controversial journal’s Editor”, Martin Enserink, 1 April 2010)
Perhaps it was a subtle message, that the reporting these idiocies emanating from Elsevier occurred on April Fool’s Day. Peer review finds objectionable precisely anything that questions the status quo because it judged such hypotheses not only implausible but beyond the pale, wrong.
Serendipity brings things to hand not only out of the unknown unknown. A long-delayed culling of my file cabinets turned up this just as I was composing this blog post:
“Disbelief greeted classics in top U.K. medical journals” [Bernard Dixon, The Scientist, 17 April 1989].
“Truly innovative science is often — perhaps usually — accompanied by skepticism, dismissal, and/or disdain from the ranks of established expertise. That proposition receives surprisingly strong support from a study of the top-ranking papers from Britain’s premier medical journals. . . . No less than four of the six papers most cited from The Lancet and the British Medical Journal during the years 1955-1988 record ideas that were initially rejected or disbelieved.”
The examples include:
— Marina Seabright’s discovery of stripes or bands in certain chromosome preparations, dismissed for four years; but then it became the most referenced report in The Lancet between 1955 and 1988 (2,643 citations).
— George Miller’s finding of an association between high-density lipoprotein and atherosclerosis.
— Martin Skirrow’s recognition of Campylobacter as responsible for more cases of food poisoning than Salmonella.
— Alice Stewart’s study of lymphatic leukemia leading to discoveries of the fetal origins of all childhood cancers and an understanding of the role of cancers of the immune system in other diseases.
Perhaps worth noting as well is that 50% of these wrongly rejected breakthroughs were made by women. Given that women have been historically greatly underrepresented in the ranks of scientists, this adds at least anecdotal evidence for Bernard Barber’s generalization that low status of the proponents is among the reasons why the Establishment pooh-poohs a given novelty.