what krakens can teach us about peer review

June 13, 2010 — Leave a comment

Thanks to PZ’s love of all things cephalopod, I got a very interesting lesson in Kraken anatomy which took all those curious into the bowels of a creature big enough to swallow ships whole and decapitate eight men with just one of its monstrous suckers. In other words, it was a complete work of fiction spoofing pseudoscientific naturalists of the nineteenth century who couldn’t even tell the difference between squid and octopi trying their best to pass off tall tales as the results of years of painstaking research, in an ad for Kraken Brand rum…

Sure, the video is funny and should be enjoyed for what it is, but it does strike a note if we were to look back at what it was spoofing. Back in the nineteenth century, before peer review was as widely used as it is today, the scientists and historians of the time would often make plenty of unsubstantiated claims published in journals which were read by those who were considered wealthy intellectuals, and these claims often stuck for many a decade. Egyptologists are still correcting fictional histories and conspiracy theories about everything from the history of the Sphinx, to the real cause of King Tut’s death. Modern neo-pagan movements were founded on a blend of historical fact and pseudo-historical fiction about witch cults and the real motivation behind the huge and terrifying movements which fueled Inquisitions. And do we even need to talk about the history of eugenics and how it was so erroneously and self-servingly tacked on to the theory of evolution by Galton and racists and snobs who saw themselves as being biologically superior to the poor and their fellow humans?

So whenever you see cranks who failed to get published in scientific journals talking about taking their ideas straight to the people and sneering at peer review, think back to the days when science worked the way they propose it should and consider all the subsequent mistakes and wild claims which the public often wouldn’t see refuted with real evidence since scientific criticisms took place in private letters and publications which a private citizen wouldn’t even know how to obtain. Even though peer review isn’t perfect and needs to become even more transparent, we shouldn’t be encouraging people to circumvent it just so they could write a book exploring a controversy or dilemma that doesn’t exist solely for the sake of selling copies while pretending to be groundbreaking experts in a field in which they have few, if any, qualifications.

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