Another day, another dangerous claim from far-right opinion blog Breitbart. Usually, their reporting doesn’t warrant a response article as their unproven allegations are easily and quickly dismissed by fact, but when they begin to threaten scientists with violence, it is obvious that the affable façade of the so-called alt-right is just a front for the unsavoury views of people who want to silence their opponents by any means necessary.
Climate denier James Delingpole wrote an article for Breitbart recently, titled "When You Hear A Scientist Talk About ‘Peer Review’ You Should Reach For Your Browning" – a sentence taken almost word for word from the Nazi play “Schlageter”.
Although the author appears to be familiar with pre-war German plays, he seems to not really get what the peer review process, in terms of scientific research, is all about. So what does peer review mean?
Peer review is an important part of the scientific process. It is an evaluation of a scientist’s work by other experts working in their field. The aim of it is simple, to make sure that what’s written down is correct and well-analyzed.
This doesn’t mean that the peer review process is flawless and shouldn’t be improved upon or challenged, but the argument "I’d rather shoot another human being because they disagree with my view of the peer review process" is not an argument, it's a worrying world view.
He continued by saying that peer review is just a “claim to authority” so people will not question the scientists' work when they hear the phrase “peer reviewed”. It seems to be working, right? No-one has ever questioned the overwhelming evidence for global warming.
Unironically, and in an attempt to plug his book, Delingpole does his own claim to authority by saying "be sure to point out – as I do in my book Watermelons – that neither Watson and Crick nor Einstein were peer reviewed," which is only partly true, so if you take his words at face value you would be misinformed. And in that he forgets how even the most famous scientists can make mistakes, and thus need others to review their work.
For example, Einstein added some fudge terms to his laws of general relativity to make the universe unchanging (it’s actually expanding) but when other scientists showed the evidence against his correction, he dropped it.
Peer review doesn’t guarantee that no mistakes are published but it makes them more unlikely. Science journalists also need to keep a critical eye on what’s released, as we are another quality check in the scientific process of reporting accurate information to the general public. Delingpole has previously declared that it’s not his job to read peer review papers. Sorry, but if you are writing and reporting on science, then it should be.
Science is a communal effort in reducing our shared ignorance. It is about producing an idea, testing if it is correct and then having other people confirm your observations and results. Threatening your opponents with violence only shows that your side has no other argument to support your unproven and untested claims.