Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Referees (1)

While most scientists have mixed feelings about referees, particularly after having had a paper rejected, they also have mixed feelings about expressing views on refereeing. Once you get old enough, mixed feelings crystallize! This blog was inspired by p9, Chemistry World, August 2012. While "standard wisdom" asserted platinum, palladium and gold did not form oxo compounds, between 2004 and 2007 Craig Hill published papers containing a large amount of data supporting the claim that they did. These papers were subsequently retracted in light of further evidence. There was no question that the original data were correct, but the author now admits the interpretation of their significance was incorrect. The original authors stated that this showed science was working. "Not very well," answered one scathing critic, who stated the papers should have been stopped by the referees, and he was quite scathing about the quality of the refereeing. The issue is, is that opinion valid?
In my opinion, referees should never stop publication of a paper on the grounds that it is wrong unless they can show where, and give the author a chance to rebut their criticism. Science is in a bad way if papers can be rejected simply because referees do not believe them. If one learns nothing else from history, surely one should learn from the Almagest that authority has no place in science; only observations determine whether a theory is false. At stake is the future of science. Whatever science needs now, "priestly authority" is not one of them.
What I find to be of particular importance is that if the evidence was not sufficient, or it permitted alternative explanations, why did the critic not see this at some time during the following 8 years? If nobody can tell that something is wrong over 8 years, I think it is unfair to criticize the referee, who had a few days to view the paper, and furthermore, while he would have some general relevant experience, he would not be an expert in those specific areas. Whoever was at fault here (if anyone was) it was not the referees.
What could have gone wrong? The most obvious is that while a wealth of data was collected, it did not lead to a singular conclusion. I shall elaborate on this in a future post, because I have attempted to advocate a procedure for such structural analysis that is a little different from what many follow. The other problem is more serious, and that is, perhaps there is no place where doubts can be put forward and debated in a logical fashion. In these days of unlimited web space, this is correctable. It seems to me there should be such a forum, managed, and reviewed before postings are accepted, but reviewed for one purpose only: to ensure that the posting makes a legitimate point and is done so in accord with the logic rules of debate, i.e. as laid down by Aristotle, such as attacks on the conclusion are valid, but attacks on the person are not and resorting to authority are not.
Posted by Ian Miller on Aug 28, 2012 9:24 PM Europe/London

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