Peer Review vs Pastor Tom

“Public opinion is often wrong, mob opinion is almost always wrong, [and] religious opinion is wrong by definition.” –Christopher Hitchens

My new favorite blogger/cartoonist/wicked awesome chick, Jennfier who runs Blag Hag, got into a minor tift with some pastor over his slightly creepy behavior. You can read about his creepy behavior here.

Aforementioned pastor runs a blog called Hard Truth. In a post about the trip the Secular Student Alliance took to the Creation “Museum,” Pastor Tom calls Jennifer a “manically insane blogger.” Frankly, I find that to be a compliment.

Anyway, after reading Pastor Tom’s post, I scrolled down a little to find Pastor Tom’s “opinion” of how science works at research universities.

Pastor Tom has written a little story about his interpretation of how research works at a university. It seems Pastor Tom has never, ever set foot onto the campus of any university, ever. (Well a real university. BJU doesn’t count. *Snicker* BJ-U.)

I’ve spent the last six years of my life at a major research university. I can’t speak for every college in America, but I can say that the vast majority of research institutions do not behave like Pastor Tom’s little scenario.

You can go read the whole thing for yourself. The premise is that scientists Jethro and Jimbob are in a field and are examining trampled grass. Jethro concludes that a spaceship has trampled the grass. Here is an excerpt:

“You’ve seen an alien spaceship?” Says Jethro, doubtingly.

“No Jethro, you don’t need to see it, there is overwhelming evidence that if aliens existed and had spaceships, that is how they would make it.” Said Jimbob, not understanding all of Jethro’s questions.

“Really? Where is that evidence? Can I see it? That sounds cool!” Jethro was excited.

Jimbob said, “Sure no problem.” So he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a drawing of a spaceship.

Jethro, disappointed said, “Jimbob, this is one of your drawings, this isn’t proof.”

Jimbob replied, “Jethro, what does my white lab coat say?”

“It says that you are the head of the science department at Darwin University”, replied Jethro.

“That’s correct, and what does your white lab coat say?” Jimbob was very smug.

“It says that I’m a lowly scientist who works in the science department at Darwin university, and loves his job, and would like to keep it, so I better agree with everything you say.” Jethro knew where this was going.

“Correct again. So let me ask you again, is this picture proof of what an alien spaceship would look like if aliens existed and had spaceships?”

Jimbob crossed his arms waiting for Jethro’s reply.

Jethro replied, “Absolutely, this is clearly undeniable, indisputable evidence that an alien spaceship landed, they had a party, went into the corn field, came back, and left.”

“I knew it!” Said Jimbob, thrilled. “And since you’ve already agreed, I can publish these findings because I’ve been peer-reviewed! What a find!”

Major problems with this argument?

1) There is no way Jimbob is a lowly scientist. He is, what we call, a graduate student. Also known as slave labor. Universities punish lowly assistant professors with teaching 100 level courses. They punish lowly graduate students with trampling around in a cow pasture.

2) Rarely does one professor have enough clout to hire or fire you. Most places you can’t even be fired by your department chair. Merely disagreeing with another faculty members is never enough to fire anyone. Otherwise, my entire department would have fired itself. Which brings me to point three…

3) Research is a cut throat business. Jimbob may keep his mouth shut in Pastor Tom’s little scenario but that’s only because he’s working out the methodology for his own paper which will complete contradict everything Jethro is saying. So that brings us to point four…

4) That description of peer-review literally made me spit out my wine. (This saddens me, because it was good wine. Pastor Tom, you owe me!). Let’s take a look at how peer review really works.

Someone comes up with an idea. They test it (or have their graduate students test it.) They discuss with their colleagues (often at different universities.) They try some suggestions. They present a rough draft at a workshop. They get some suggestions. They work on it some more. They present it at a conference (at a different university.) They get some suggestions (from scholars all over the country/world). They work on it some more. They submit it to a journal. The journal looks at it and if the work looks solid, they send it out for review. The author(s) name(s) is/are removed. The paper is sent to several reviewers whose identities are unknown to the paper’s author(s).

A great number of these papers are returned to the author looking like the Kool-Aid man ejaculated all over them. There are often tons of corrections, from people who frequently disagree with each other (see point three). And you damn sure don’t get peer-reviewed by someone more “lowly” than you. Oh and the whole process, as I mentioned, is anonymous. Now Pastor Tom could have known all of this if he had just Google’d “peer review” and found the damn Wikipedia page.

5) Finally, professors don’t carry around their own drawings. They have graduate students do that (or maybe an undergrad student if they have the funding).

What Pastor Tom has done here is mistaken scientific discovery for religious discovery. Remember how Galileo got offed? That’s what Jesus does.

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