Friday, September 28, 2012

Sowell on Peer Review

Previously I linked to this pamphlet by economist Thomas Sowell on taxes and the economy. It is an excellent article on many fronts, including debunking from historical fact the idea that higher tax rates are the answer to low revenues, or that lower tax rates for “the rich” shift the tax burden to lower income earners.

He also includes this paragraph, commenting on textbooks that repeat these ideas.

There is no need to presume that the scholars who wrote these
history textbooks were deliberately lying, in order to protect a vision or an agenda. They may simply have relied on a peer consensus so widely held and so often repeated as to be seen as “well-known facts” requiring no serious re-examination. The results show how unreliable peer consensus can be, even when it is a peer consensus of highly intellectual people, if those people share a very similar vision of the world and treat its conclusions as axioms, rather than as hypotheses that need to be checked against facts. These history textbooks may also reflect the economic illiteracy of many leading scholars outside the field of economics, who nevertheless insist on proclaiming their conclusions on economic issues.

Peer review is a good thing, but it is not foolproof. When all the peers subscribe to the same basic worldview and assumptions, their review will be seriously tainted.

If you want real review, seriously consider pursuing the critique of someone who actually disagrees with you.

In the blog world, I think this is prevalent. Blog owners are often quick to edit or just outright remove comments that disagree with them, or present an alternative view.

Of course these comments never appear so few know it, unless you are one that has been affected by it. But on certain blogs espousing controversial positions, if there is no dissent in the comments, it is likely that the blog owner is practicing censorship.

In my view, this is often driven by fear—the fear of being proven wrong on your site. It is sometimes driven by pride—the pride that refuses to acknowledge that your arguments are not as airtight as you would like your readers to think they are.

Does it matter? Not really, at least not in the big picture.

But it participates in the worst kind of peer review, the allowance of views that only agree.

All in all, most points are well-served by counterpoints.

And Sowell reminds us why.

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