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Peer Review and Creationism - Look out, it’s evil!
Helping to drag America, kicking & screaming, into the Age of Enlightenment
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Peer Review and Creationism
Back in graduate school I worked down the hall from a world-class phony. Real nice guy, but so full of shit you had to wonder how he kept his shape against the pull of gravity. Among other things, he'd inflated his self-importance to the point that he, a lowly grad student with no more seniority than I, envisioned himself the decision-making hub of the entire department. He somehow believed, for instance, that his advisor, the department chair, felt it crucial to consult with him before making any major executive decisions, such as hiring a new faculty member. And any visiting VIP would inevitably hear all about it, in the presence of the largest possible number of people, in a grand and mortifying display of schmoozing. Ahead, Schmooze Factor Eight!

At times like this, my compadre would give me a nudge and murmur, "He's so cute when he plays 'scientist'!" And we'd spend the rest of the meeting repressing laughter, with variable success.

I never thought I'd find a more fitting object for this little jibe—until I learned about the incipient International Journal of Creation Research (IJCR). You guessed it—an entire journal devoted to creation "science," delivered straight to you from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).

You may laugh at first, as I did. The publishers' disconnection from reality is nothing short of astounding. Do they imagine that references to Int J Creation Res will soon be sprinkled liberally across the landscape of PubMed? Do they expect their particular brand of fakery to be disseminated to the furthest reaches of the scientific community through Science Citation Index?

But there is something more sinister at work here, and it all hinges on one hyphenated word in the description of this farcical publication: "IJCR is a professional peer-reviewed journal of interdisciplinary scientific research that presents evidence for recent creation within a biblical framework" [italics mine]. One of the most trusted strategies for keeping crackpot ideas and fraudulent results out of mainstream science is the peer review process. (An excellent summary of peer review may be found at Sense about Science [download 221 kb PDF].) Needless to say, creationist hacks have had no luck at all convincing peer-reviewed journals in geology, paleontology, biology, biochemistry, genetics, astronomy or nuclear physics to publish their nonsense. But now, finally convinced that they won't be allowed to play with the big kids until they show willingness to follow the rules, they've gone and created their own peer-reviewed publication.

I'm not at all worried about the impact of this pretend journal within the scientific community. Naturally, the more prominent creationists are well-known to legitimate scientists, and watchdog organizations like Talk Reason and The Panda's Thumb keep tabs on their dishonest schemes. More of concern, however, is its potential influence outside the scientific community. American mass media are notoriously uncritical of fantastic claims made by persons whose only claim to authority is a claim to authority, plus a loud mouth and perhaps a seven-figure propaganda budget. Moreover, our political leaders are no better than their science advisors, when they even bother to consult them. Either group might be bamboozled by the magic words "peer-reviewed journal"; never mind that the "peers" in this case are all fellow snake-oil salesmen of the slimiest caliber.

Nonetheless, I've seen only the mildest reaction to the IJCR's "Call for Papers" in anti-creationist 'blogs. Perhaps they have reason to expect that the "journal" will quickly fade into well-deserved obscurity due to lack of interest. Maybe the Institute for Creation Research will give it up when it realizes that IJCR hasn't expanded the creationist sphere one iota beyond the already established small community of delusional "scientists" and their mindless sycophants.

But that kind of speculation is not what I wanted to write about; I'll leave that to those more sociologically aware than I. Nobody, as far as I know, has written much about the actual criteria for publication in IJCR. A careful look into the instructions for authors and referees ("peers" who review submitted manuscripts) reveals important differences between the real process of peer review and cheap ripoff to be practiced by IJCR.

The "Call for Papers" [93 K PDF] reads like a fairly typical announcement by a new journal's editorial board, except for one ominous criterion: "Papers can be in any scientific, or social scientific, field, but must be from a young-earth perspective and aim to assist the development of the Creation Model of Origins" [italics mine]. In essence, papers must not challenge the established dogma theory of young-earth creationism (YEC). Anyone with even a rudimentary background in science would find such a requirement alarming indeed. No reputable scientific journal would ever insist that papers adhere to a particular model or theory. No reputable journal would reject a paper out of hand solely because it contradicted evolutionary theory, for instance. Creationist works would be rejected, to be sure, but on the basis of their shoddy reasoning and fraudulent misuse of data, and not on the simple fact of challenging this or that existing system of ideas.

For a contrast, look at the corresponding description of the Journal of Human Evolution.
The Journal of Human Evolution concentrates on publishing the highest quality papers covering all aspects of human evolution. The central focus is aimed jointly at palaeoanthropological work, covering human and primate fossils, and at comparative studies of living species, including both morphological and molecular evidence. These include descriptions of new discoveries, interpretative analyses of new and previously described material, and assessments of the phylogeny and palaeobiology of primate species.

In addition to original research papers, space is allocated for the rapid publication of short communications on new discoveries, such as exciting new fossils, or on matters of topical interest, such as reports on meetings. The journal also publishes longer review papers solicited from workers active in particular fields of research. All manuscripts are subjected to review by three referees.
Nowhere does the Journal of Human Evolution specify that papers must conform to evolutionary theory as it currently exists. Unlike "revealed" religious doctrine, scientific theories are not static, but continually grow and develop to accommodate new findings. This journal would not summarily reject a paper that directly contradicted evolution by natural selection, but the authors of such a manuscript would have to prepare an absolutely airtight case, in the light of the vast body of scientific findings that support the basic essentials of the theory.

Looking back at the IJCR's Call for Papers: by "assist the development of the Creation Model of Origins," the editors undoubtedly mean to "attempt to validate YEC through publishing pretend science in a pretend journal." Creationists are not interested in extending knowledge; they are only concerned with substituting Biblical literalism for scientific inquiry. To do so by publishing the IJCR may be likened to "an attempt to shore up a house of cards with sunbeams." (I wish I could recall who first penned that lovely metaphor, so that I could add a proper citation. It wasn't me, in any case.)



Like the Call for Papers, most of the Instructions for Authors [338K PDF] could have been lifted from any legitimate scientific periodical. In glaring contrast, however, is Section 8, "Author Appeal Procedure" (p. 9). I've never seen such a detailed list of protocols for dealing with disagreements between authors and reviewers. Something fishy is going on here! (The appeal procedure is described in even more detail in the "Technical Review Process" document; please see below.) In the same vein is the parting instruction on the Author Checklist (p. 12): "Work Closely with Your Editor." Usually, authors have very little contact with the editor, except to receive the decision based on the referees' comments. What's more, the editor doesn't often take a highly active role in the review process unless something strange happens during the review. (For instance, if a referee agrees to review a paper and then fails to carry through, the editor may have to step in as a substitute referee.) The members of the IJCR Editorial Board—the capital-E Editors with whom the little-a authors should closely work—are not listed on the Web site, but you can be assured that the list will read like a roll call of the creation "science" good-ol'-boys' network.

The final IJCR-related document, the "Technical Review Process, Overview and Procedures" [269K PDF] is the most bizarre of the lot. Herein we find the instructions for referees, as well as a clearer glimpse into the machinations of the Editorial Board (shown in Appendix 3, p. 13, to be internal to ICR—whaddaya know!—except as necessary to lend a veneer of reputability to the proceedings). In general, the peer-review process is familiar enough to everyone involved that a ten-page outline of the procedure is hardly necessary. But here we've departed the universe of real science for the Creationist Twilight Zone, where the laws of Nature step aside for Judeo-Christian mythology; so perhaps we need a refresher course after all.

One thing the experienced scientist will notice right away is how the IJCR flaunts its bureaucratic structure without naming any of the principals—arousing suspicions that the Editorial Board has a far more fluid membership (dictated by the peripheral members' embarrassment from serving, perhaps) than it would care to admit. I also like the haphazard outline format of this document. Arabic numerals are used at the first and second levels of organization, until Section 8, at which point the subheadings 8.1, 8.2, ..., are suddenly interposed between the first and second Arabic-numbered levels. Are the editors making a sly allusion to the rigor of thought that goes into creation "science"?

There follow two entire pages describing the possible correspondence between author and editor. You'd almost think that creationist authors had never encountered the peer-review process before. This conclusion will only be more firmly established further along, in the next two sections, describing the editors' duties and the appeal process, and in the two appendices outlining the process for referees in lavish detail. This is not to say that scientific journals don't provide instructions for reviewers. Nonetheless, a comparison between, say, the "Hints for Reviewers" from Genetic Epidemiology [84K PDF] and the IJCR equivalent reveals some stark contrasts. The former is nothing more than a guide to writing a helpful, informative review: good advice, if perhaps unnecessary for experienced reviewers. On the other hand, the IJCR instructions for reviewers (p. 10) explain the duties very carefully (with citations to the Bible!), without any mention of how the review might help the authors. Also, is it just me, or does it read as though it was written for seventh-graders? Both journals include an evaluation form for reviewers to indicate their overall impression of the scientific merit and presentation of the manuscript. Yet whereas Genetic Epidemiology only gives one sentence of instruction—where to send in the form—IJCR apparently believes it necessary to explain every detail, with plenty of patronizing remarks. Right off the bat we learn that "The form below is intended as a tool for you to convey information in an organized fashion to your Editor." O-kay. God forbid we submit a disorganized review and worry our Editor's little head unnecessarily.

In section 9, "Appeal Review" (pp. 7-8; also covered in Section 8), we discover, over a page and a half of instructions, the futility of appealing an editorial diktat. "Because of the confidence implicit by the ICR Administrative Council in the expertise and deduction of the IJCR Editor-in-Chief, Editors and their Reviewers, the burden in each such case is OVERWHELMINGLY on the Author to prove that his/her paper has been treated prejudicially or unfairly" [emphasis and unbearable, sanctimonious smugness theirs]. Feel discouraged yet? The ensuing tortuous process of appointing an appellate committee, all presumably within the same tightly-knit network of cronies that runs the ICR, appears to have no other function but to distract the author from that fact that what is really being set up is a kangaroo court. (Fittingly, Andrew A. Snelling, Editor in Chief of IJCR and in most cases the chair of the appellate committee, is Australian.) To wrap up the Appeal Review section, the following, almost apologetic, comment is offered: "It is hoped that this somewhat 'bureaucratic' process will maintain the integrity and quality of the IJCR." Assuredly, the truth is spoken here: the integrity and quality will be maintained. But at what level?

To help the referees along with evaluating the scientific (or, in this case, "scientific") merits of a manuscript, the Editorial Board provides the "Evaluation Form" [italics theirs] mentioned previously. In the "Preliminary Evaluation" (p. 11), the reviewer is to indicate the extent to which he agrees or disagrees with each of a list of statements, which I have reproduced below:
Preliminary Evaluation
[Paper is to be evaluated on the following criteria.]
  1. Title of paper (to be filled out by the Editor):
  2. This paper makes an original contribution to the Creation Model (see (1) above):
  3. This paper is well-documented (with respect to the relevant literature):
  4. This paper has considered alternative explanations:
  5. This paper demonstrates an awareness of its own limitations:
  6. This paper provides a basis for further work in its area or related area:
  7. This paper exhibits sound methodology:
  8. This paper demonstrates proper use of material and equipment:
  9. This paper presents sufficient data to address its stated aims:
  10. This paper properly interprets its data:
  11. This paper properly develops and uses its mathematical models:
  12. This paper's mathematical models are applied to the appropriate and/or important examples:
  13. This paper is tightly and coherently reasoned:
  14. This paper is faithful to the grammatico-historical/normative interpretation of Scripture:
Wow. A whole raft of quite reasonable standards for scholarship is sandwiched between two outrageous scientific deal-breakers. This list, more than anything else from IJCR's editors, brings to mind one of my favorite truisms: "Add a tablespoon of wine to a barrel full of sewage and you get sewage. Add a tablespoon of sewage to a barrel full of wine and you get—sewage." And it's no accident that the anti-scientific criteria appear at the beginning and end—the two most important positions in the list. Any guess as to which are the essential standards for publication in IJCR?

We've already looked at the first statement, about the Creation Model. It will suffice to repeat here that adherence to an immutable theory, in defiance of empirical evidence, is the very antithesis of the scientific method. What really gets me is that creationists are continually whining about the "dogmatic" stance of the legitimate scientific community in keeping untestable theories and blatant falsehoods out of the sphere of knowledge.

The final criterion is almost more amusing than farcical. That has to be the fanciest, most highfalutin' possible way of saying "whatever the hell we happen to feel the Bible says." It sure beats out the Mormon Church's affirmation of the Bible as the word of God "insofar as it is correctly translated." (I actually admire the Mormons' forthrightness in admitting what everyone else does but doesn't admit.)



I draw two overall conclusions from the IJCR's materials for authors and reviewers. First, the editors clearly expect to bring in authors and referees who haven't the slightest conception of the peer review process. Second, somebody definitely wants to keep a very close eye on every aspect of the proceedings. In summary, the editors graciously invite even the most ignorant to play along in their little game of make-believe, but they make it clear that the Editorial Board—the ICR, in other words—makes all the substantive decisions.

They're so cute when they play "scientist"!


Edited 6/18/07 to add examples from Genetic Epidemiology and to clean up the writing

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Comments
jedibl From: jedibl Date: June 11th, 2007 07:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Have you seen this virtual walk-through of the creation museum? http://crazytalk.typepad.com/bluegrassroots/2007/06/fun_at_the_crea.html Has lots of nice pictures of the displays. My favorite are the diagrams of "According to human reason..." and "According to God's Word" which left me thinking, "Gee, are they really leaving it up to me to decide which is more plausible, because, um... Human Reason sounds pretty good to me." Granted, the blogger may be leaving out some of the connecting text, or something. But I was still torn between extreme amusement and... disgust.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 12th, 2007 11:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've seen a few articles about it, but none so comprehensive. As closely as I adhere to the anti-creationism community, I've been hearing about the "museum" for some time. I even got to sign a petition, reserved for scientists in the neighboring states of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, that denounced the place and called for scientific literacy. I haven't written about it because it has been so well exposed for what it is by more dedicated bloggers than I. However, it's less than 400 km south of here, so should I actually make a visit.... I wish I'd made it to the opening-day protest, but we were in the process of moving that weekend, alas.

Your thoughts precisely matched my own: many of the displays could have appeared in a pro-science museum without needing the slightest change. Perhaps Ken Ham feels that the superiority of logic in God's Word is so patent that it isn't even necessary to point out which should be more reasonable.
jedibl From: jedibl Date: June 13th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, I had no doubt that you'd heard of the museum (and been suitably offended) but I thought you'd appreciate the in-depth look at some of the displays.

And I can't really imagine most of the displays appearing in a pro-science museum mainly because I don't think most of them wouldn't sink to denigrating the bible in such a public forum. After all, there are plenty of perfectly reasonable scientists out there who don't believe in the literal truth of the bible but still adhere to some form of the Christian religion.

Also, I think a lot of what is displayed in the museum as "starting with human reason" should really be titled "starting with scientific evidence"... It's not as though "human reason" came up with its "theories" out of thin air and just offered them up in opposition to God's Word for no reason (pardon the pun). But based on what I can see of the displays, I guess that's how people are supposed to feel. Maybe the creationists who make their pilgrimage to the museum have already been trained to recognize "human reason" as a dirty phrase and immediately reject anything associated with it.

I guess that makes some sad kind of sense, actually.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 13th, 2007 04:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh yes, I do appreciate the detail here. I really need to go visit for the complete experience. The patrons and staff will likely provide as much entertainment as the exhibits.

I see your point. By focusing on deduction instead of evidence, they're pitting the puny mind of Man (we'd say "Humanity," but no doubt the creationists will have downplayed the contribution of women to scientific progress) against the ineffable Word of God. On the other hand, the evidence is usually the same at the most basic level; Ham and his cronies usually focus on the interpretation (as in the time frame of geologic columns), or on contriving fallacies in methods of measurement (as in radioactive dating techniques).
shinyobject From: shinyobject Date: June 13th, 2007 02:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I visited the (creationist) Museum of Earth History in Arkansas last year as part of a gigantic scavenger hunt. Saw one exhibit that showed Adam, Eve, and a velociraptor just, you know, chillin together in the Garden of Eden.

Another explained how animals got to Australia even though the continents have always been separated and all animals originated in Eden: the flood raised water levels and enabled all the animals to swim there!
Didn't you know kangaroos are noted for their ability to swim thousands of miles, eating fish along the way?

6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 13th, 2007 04:46 am (UTC) (Link)
ROFFLE! I'd wondered how all those marsupials got over there. Did they say anything about the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians and other cultures whose records ran unbroken through the time of the Flood?
shinyobject From: shinyobject Date: June 13th, 2007 07:37 am (UTC) (Link)
"It is important to realize that recorded Egyptian history begins about 3000 BC. Egyptian prehistory was probably very short, indicating that little time had passed after the great Flood. Although Egyptian historians consider the prehistorical period(s) to be quite long, there is little hard evidence for this"

"all "dates" higher than 5000 BP are not absolute dates, but are only measurements of residual unstable C14. "The larger group of scientists which question specific dates, or sections of sequences of them, are probably closer to the actual fact."

Not from the "museum" but it answers your question.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 16th, 2007 08:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sigh; the authors must never had heard of tree-ring data and ice-core data and several other chronologies that go back more than 10 ky without relying on 14C decay. And Archbishop Ussher dated the Flood to 2349 BC, two centuries after the Great Pyramid of Khufu was built. Silly Fundies!
samwibatt From: samwibatt Date: June 11th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think this is another step in the trend toward conservatives' self-segregation, along the lines of Conservapedia and GodTube. They're creating a separate encyclopedia and video sharing service, the entire point of which is to weed out doctrinally-opposed (or insufficiently zealous) ideas. I see no problem with this, if only their versions of the news stations weren't the same ones everybody else watches.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 12th, 2007 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's an interesting point. To your list I'd like to add home schooling, which, when applied by Fundies, indoctrinates and shelters from reality simultaneously; and a whole mess of Christian versions of MySpace whose members seem to take homophobia and Bible literalism as axioms. Conservapedia really tries to provide an illusion of neutrality by paying lip service to "controversies" such as that between evolution and ID/creationism. My main concern with sites like Conservapedia is that they tend to entrap the severely ignorant looking for unbiased information. There is no obvious simpler solution than to work to promote education and knowledge as desirable things. The other sites don't worry me at all, for by design they tend to confine themselves to folks on that one particular trip and aren't inclined to force themselves on the larger, reality-based community.
samwibatt From: samwibatt Date: June 13th, 2007 02:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, whatever they get up to, it's unlikely to get any worse than this.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 13th, 2007 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Funny, I just saw that today. I love the gaping Archie with the Pac-Man pupils; he looks just a bit art-deco. He reminds me of the construction worker in that workplace safety guide in National Lampoon.
samwibatt From: samwibatt Date: June 13th, 2007 04:56 am (UTC) (Link)
It was linked from Comics Curmudgeon - I suppose that's how you found it too.

I'd heard of the Christian Archie comics, but I'd never actually seen any. Very weird.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 13th, 2007 06:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I saw it linked from two pro-science (and anti-creationist) 'blogs. I had not heard of Christian Archie before; wonder what the real Archie folks think about that? I still see Jughead Digest, or whatever it's called, in the impulse-buying display at the grocery checkout line. (It's about as anachronistic as anything could possibly get, to boot. Jughead defies the one-way flow of time by simultaneously wearing that butcher-paper crown hat and an iPod. Maybe the Archie characters have only survived in bizarre alternate universes, where the 21st century loops back onto the 1950s, or where all that crazy Christian theology is fact.)
samwibatt From: samwibatt Date: June 13th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
The artist for these comics was the (a?) artist for the mainstream Archie, and he had permission to make the fundy ones - see here. I guess the mainstream Archie folks didn't have a problem with it, like they might have if he'd done something like this (danger, sort of NSFW, certainly the comics themselves would be).

I know what you mean about the Archie-nachronism. One of the strips the other day had Archie wailing that he'd lost a 2 gigabyte memory chip from his keychain - he then went around yelling "Help! I've lost my memory!". Mrs. W. and I agree that Archie talking about gigabytes was sick and wrong.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 16th, 2007 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's too bad, violating such classic Americana with right-wing propaganda.

Ye gads, Archie owning a flash drive is like Krazy Kat sequencing the human genome: it's so anachronistic it's hard to believe the same universe spawned the two.
jokermage From: jokermage Date: June 11th, 2007 05:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I just want to know what eventually happened to the world class phony.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 12th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
He definitely deserves a couple posts all to himself; if I can figure a way to write them while retaining anonymity for all concerned, I will. As it happens he was more or less competent in the lab under supervision, and he graduated with the respectable tally of three "first-author" publications. However, in the nine or ten years since then, only one paper has appeared in PubMed under his name as primary author, and that was in connection with his grad-student lab; which suggests that after starting his postdoc he quickly reached the ceiling of what he could accomplish by schmoozing, in the absence of a true scientific spark.

In these modern times, success in research unavoidably involves some schmoozing, and nobody in the biomedical sciences could get within a light-year of a Nobel Prize without attracting a large network of collaborators and underlings. Nontheless, such mutually beneficial schmoozing is performed in the service of strengthening a research program, and not merely to make oneself look impressive.
(Deleted comment)
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 13th, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh-heh—I originally had the 9-to-5 scientist bit in there, but it was sort of a tangent, so I saved it for later. But yes, if he ever had to stay in the lab past 5:01 PM, or (gasp!) had to come in during the weekend, he made sure the rest of the department knew about it.
(Deleted comment)
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 16th, 2007 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
He's a different story; that of great potential seemingly wasted on account of laziness. Of course he has the right to do whatever he wants with his potential, but it is kind of sad, since he could have succeeded perfectly well without that much effort, and statistics is the perfect field for someone who wants a 9-to-5 job.

Our former classmate, on the other hand, was faking potential more than wasting it—a competent but uninspired scholar affecting greatness in the making.
(Deleted comment)
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 11th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am so beezee! Life a-reelee socks.
shinyobject From: shinyobject Date: June 13th, 2007 02:51 am (UTC) (Link)
The whole "change a theory once we discover new facts" idea? Logical, right?

Claim made in a frustrating conversation with a creationist: The only reason evolution accounts for all that evidence is because scientists change it every time new contradictory evidence comes up.

Yeah, it's called the scientific method. If you change your story in court when caught lying, that's not the same as a jury changing their verdict after they find the gun.
6_bleen_7 From: 6_bleen_7 Date: June 13th, 2007 06:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that really bugs me too. The creationist mindset doesn't deal well with uncertainty, and of course there is always uncertainty in science; all scientific theories are incomplete. And, as you mention, there's the tendency toward false dichotomies: If a new datum isn't precisely consistent with current theory, it must be directly contradictory. Likewise, if evolution can't explain everything, the only alternative is creationism, which trivially can (even though is isn't science).
shinyobject From: shinyobject Date: June 13th, 2007 07:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Exactly.

It's like seeing a railroad track that extends across the country with two rails missing. Obviously, this is a system that can't possibly work and the only way someone could get from LA to New York is by teleportation.
From: ext_274896 Date: October 5th, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

^__^

How I wish I could visit this museum too,
sounds and seems rather really interesting..
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