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Peer Reviewed November 1, 2009

Posted by jetson in Personal.
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In the world of science, the concept of peer review refers to the method by which a scientific paper is evaluated by experts in the specific field of research. The goal, according to this Wikipedia entry, is to prevent “the dissemination of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views.” Admittedly, this process has it’s downsides. However, it is certainly better than allowing anyone in the world to publish anything they want into a published journal of science, with literally no standards applied whatsoever.

The internet has certainly created a vast field of articles and writings on scientific topics. Sadly though, far too many of those writings have never been peer reviewed, and are certainly not considered “scientific” by the experts. The main reason is due to the amount of work and the standards that must be met before being considered valuable research for publication. For the average reader though, the problem then becomes one of finding credible research and conclusions on a topic.

Using Google, one can find millions of articles on the current theory of evolution. Unfortunately, there are millions of articles that are completely misleading, and do not even begin to understand the basic theory, yet seem to be accepted by many people as credible. This is truly an unfortunate by-product of the information overload that the internet has become. How does one distinguish the good from the not so good? Here’s what I do.

I start with the major universities. I also consult the major scientific journals. I then look for objectivity in the articles themselves. I look for articles that share both the positive and negative results of a study, ones that describe their findings, and why they could be true, as well as describe where their findings could be faulty. To me, at least, this shows that the writing is not making a claim of absolute knowledge on a subject. It makes me feel a little better at the very least.

But what about the other millions of writings? Blogs, forums, books, the media, and other sources abound, tackle some of the toughest scientific questions at an alarming rate and scale. Thanks to the internet, anyone can claim to be an expert. To be honest, I think it is actually great to have this type of diversity. However, how do we protect ourselves from misinformation?

I think it comes down to knowing where to look, knowing how to detect dishonesty, and knowing when to say “I don’t know.” If one reads an article about a scientific discovery, one must ask, who is presenting this information, why are they presenting it, what conclusions are they espousing, and what are their credentials? These questions can help filter out the problems with bad information, or at the least, highly ignorant or uninformed opinions that have the power to look authoritative, when in fact, they are nothing but opinions and assertions.

If I take an interest in a topic I know nothing about, I think it is incumbent upon me to do the relevant research on the topic. I would most likely start in a library or book store because that’s where I spend a lot of time. If I start out with an internet search, it is indeed difficult to separate credible information because the search engines do not use “credibility” as a measure of importance. But book stores have their problems as well. It does take a lot more effort to get published, but as we all know, there are plenty of books published that do not follow any type of peer review, as it is not a requirement when publishing a book.

I’m sure you can find books that claim the earth is flat.

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