Peer Review – the Route to Truth or another Echo Chamber?

In the US legal system, the accused party has the right to trial by a “jury of peers.”

Every MD I’ve spoken to about it feels cheated that the MD is always forced to face a jury of “non-peers.” That is, non-medical people who lack advanced education in physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, neuroanatomy, pathology, surgery, clinical practice, etc.

It feels grossly unfair from this side of the table.

But can you imagine how often a jury of MD’s would side with a patient claiming to have been victimized in some way by an MD? I suspect guilty verdicts would be rare. I hope I’m wrong, and I certainly could be.

Though most MDs probably see themselves as the proverbial hens with the (personal-injury) lawyers as the wolves, many, if not most non-medical US citizens would never put MD’s in charge of bringing malpractice fairness to patients.

Common sense says that such a setup would mean well-intentioned wolves guarding the hen house, a conflict of interest, or at least an echo chamber designed to keep truth and justice away from angry patients.

Like every conflict, this one has two sides, each deserving a voice. But common sense tends to win in the end, so “non-peers” judge us MD’s in court.


What if we carry this flavor of common sense over into the peer-review process of the scientific literature?

In that priestly realm, the professors’ former students become the gatekeepers of every scientific journal on Earth. Sounds like an echo chamber.

But it wouldn’t resemble wolves guarding the henhouse if all currently established scientific views were accurate.

Sadly, even the firmly “established” views in every field tend to eventually change. We can probably assume they always will.

Without the option of infallible knowledge, the peer-review process could avoid the reality of a systemic conflict of interest if only the journals’ gatekeepers could become, by-and-large, open to radically new ideas, concepts and technologies of the sort that render “settled science” obsolete or mistaken.

Unfortunately, history demonstrates the opposite situation.

These brilliant minds appear to be closed. Peer-reviewing gatekeepers live in a status-quo bubble, like a lay person who watches only one side of TV “news” or allows our virtual-demons, the internet AI’s, to select their reading materials, podcasts and videos.

This opaque peer-review bubble extends beyond the gatekeepers to encircle government research grant money in one-sided ignorance.

History clearly tells us that breakthrough ideas are routinely blocked. It’s old news, but not fake news.

If objective truth had no independent or transcendent power of its own, I suspect modern humanity would still be paying our priestly scientists to bring us ever-tinier details on the Earth’s cosmic centrality and its false illusion of roundness.

Since academic reality in the West is “publish or perish,” scientists must think within the established thought-boxes and paradigms of their professors, otherwise their papers will be rejected by the system’s consanguineous gatekeepers. When paper rejection happens too often, the young scientist who has devoted her life to the sacred hunt for truth suddenly falls from grace and must scramble for a new career to avoid homelessness — literally.

It’s a high-risk game.

Being a young research scientist is a bit like owning a restaurant in June, 2020, except that the scientist’s debt is an enormous education loan hanging overhead forever without the exit option of bankruptcy. The risk is high. Survival for most of them requires finding a safe route that increases the odds of publication.

The modern peer-review process is part of humanity’s ancient search for infallible literature. Too bad it’s a futile search (as far as I know, though I could be wrong).

Love it or hate it, the echo-chamber review process is all we’ve got now.

Perhaps we could improve it by allowing non-scientific people, or maybe just scientists from unrelated fields, into each journal’s review process, reflecting the way a jury of “non-peers” decides the fate an MD and her patient in a court of law. Common sense?

Sometimes the experts closest to a technical issue are the people furthest from objectivity. Trees hide the forest, if nothing else.

Cross-pollination would also improve research grant money distribution. Mixing scientists and artists in the decision making processes would help a great deal, I suspect, while excluding career politicians entirely. Can I get an amen from the back?!

And perhaps an “open-mindedness quota” should be presented to the tax-payers for a vote:

“Vote YES if you want the government to reserve 10% of the relevant part of your tax money (the grant money) for projects that virtually any tenured professor would condemn without a real thought.”

The list of such government-favored (but normally taboo) “quota” projects might include things like…

  1. building a zero-point energy device,
  2. documenting extra-sensory perception,
  3. studying physical materials believed to have come form extraterrestrial space craft,
  4. studying the evidence of intelligent design in genetics,
  5. projects that don’t equate “scientific materialism” with fact,
  6. projects seeking evidence of a fundamental element of reality that is NOT reducible to matter and energy.

Like the rest of us searching for answers that improve life rather than degrading it, peer reviewers of science journals must open themselves to the distinct possibility that reductive “scientific materialism” is not the only rational option for researchers in pursuit of scientific truth.

Common-sense love,

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD