There may be no other principle more fundamental to modern society than peer review. When a controversial opinion is expressed, discussed and eventually debated, it almost always encounters the peer review test. Any dialog about climate change, medical treatments, vaccine safety, sexuality or gender will eventually be challenged. The challenge often comes with a statement similar to “the consensus is that issue x is settled based on peer review”. However important this may be, there is serious trouble with the concept of peer review. An examination of human history will find that a great number of major breakthroughs and accomplishments occurred when men or women stood alone or in small numbers against the consensus.
Those who stood alone
William Wilberforce opposed the practice of slavery in the British Empire for his entire life. While he certainly had the support of a small group of friends, he faced off against a principle we now recognize as evil; blacks or Negroes were an inferior race and the subjects of slavery to whites. This was the majority opinion of his day and could not have existed unless a form of peer review supported it.
Galileo stood against the majority opinion of society and the Catholic Church in his day by teaching that the earth orbited around the sun. A form of peer review had established the opposite opinion that the sun orbited the earth.
Paul the apostle stood apart in his revelation that salvation came by faith alone in Jesus Christ and that ritual observance of the Jewish faith, as symbolized by circumcision, was unnecessary. He stood alone against the leaders and entire church of his day on this conviction and in fact bet his entire calling and life’s purpose on it. He seemed undeterred by the opinion of his peers when making that stand.
Scanning through the pages of history we find a very similar phenomenon at work both inside and outside religion. One moment it is the consensus of the religion of the day opposing the radical “faithless” one. At other times it is the majority opinion of those outside religion opposing the man or woman of faith. At all times it is the tyranny of the masses.
Copernicus, Booker T. Washington, Elijah, Jeremiah, Churchill, Mandela, Bonhoeffer, Harriett Tubman, Ghandi and Mother Theresa are just a few examples of historical figures who either stood alone or were in the extreme minority of their day. The world would be a different place had they submitted to the concept of peer review.
What then should we do? Should we abandon the time-honored principle of peer review? If we are honest, we must admit that much good has also been done through teamwork and consensus building. Railroads and highways have been built. Many individuals contributing and building on the concepts of others have developed modern technologies like the personal computer and mobile phone, which is a form of peer review. What is the key to understanding this seeming contradiction? Perhaps some past reflections of others may offer some insight.
Quotes from history
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”Mark Twain
“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.” Mahatma Ghandi
“Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.” Michael Crichton
“There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also truth. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd, there is untruth.” Soren Kierkegaard
Peer review conclusions
To put this another way, consensus is essentially the opinion of the majority, which is based on the agreement of peers. In summary – peer review. This does not necessarily mean it is wrong but it also does not make it right. Just because a majority of people agree on an idea does not make it correct. The idea must stand on its own merits whether a small or large number of people agree with it. It is the truth of a matter that makes it correct not how many people believe it. The key to dealing with peer review it not necessarily to dismiss it but to be wary of it. Be extra alert when it is brandished as a club to hammer home the “rightness” of a point of view.
I’ll close with a radical thought. Jesus of Nazareth, God in human form to some and the most influential person in the history of the world to others, was crucified based on peer review. However, it was his opinion of one that changed the world.