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August 6, 2003

Peer Review

A Help Or Hindrance For Science?

Frank Tipler, the well-known mathematical physicist, whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making while researching the material for Mind Matters, has posted a provocative article entitled "Refereed Journals: Do They Insure Quality or Enforce Orthodoxy?" on the web site for the International Society for Complexity, information, and Design, showing how the role of peer review has changed since the prewar years. From the preliminary Abstract:

The notion that a scientific idea cannot be considered intellectually respectable until it has first appeared in a "peer" reviewed journal did not become widespread until after World War II. Copernicus's heliocentric system, Galileo's mechanics, Newton's grand synthesis -- these ideas never appeared first in journal articles. They appeared first in books, reviewed prior to publication only by their authors, or by their authors' friends. . . . [P]rior to the Second World War the refereeing process, even where it existed, had very little effect on the publication of novel ideas, at least in the field of physics. But in the last several decades, many outstanding physicists have complained that their best ideas -- the very ideas that brought them fame -- were rejected by the refereed journals. Thus, prior to the Second World War, the refereeing process worked primarily to eliminate crackpot papers. Today, the refereeing process works primarily to enforce orthodoxy. [T]he referee is quite often not as intellectually able as the author whose work he judges. We have pygmies standing in judgment on giants.

(Thanks also to Andrew Lamb for sending me this one)

Tipler is also the author of a book, The Physics of Immortality (1994), that caused controversy in scientific circles by claiming to prove that not only will we all be resurrected in the distant future as emulations in infinitely capable computers, but it is inevitable by the laws of physics. Lots to ponder on for students of extreme views of science.

 
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