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The New Peer-Review: Why 'Unbiased' Science Is Now Often Misleading

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by Tyler Durden
Saturday, Aug 27, 2022 - 12:35 AM

Authored by Jennifer Margulis and Joe Wang via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

Peer-reviewed scientific publishing works like this: a scientist or a science team have a scientific question, they come together to design and conduct an experiment to try to answer that question. The experiment may take months, years, or even decades. Once the scientists have collected and analyzed the experiment’s results, they write up their findings, and draw conclusions based on the already accepted knowledge in the field, their new discovery, and their educated speculations of what is yet to be known. Then they send their article to scientific journals within their field of study.

(JNT Visual/Shutterstock*)

When a journal editor receives the article, the editor reads it carefully and either rejects it or sends it out to other known experts in the field, who were not involved with the study, to review the findings and the write-up. Once these experts weigh in, the editor then makes the decision about whether to reject the paper or to accept it, in most cases, with notes for the authors to revise their submission.

Peer-reviewers will often ask the researchers insightful questions or query parts of the findings in the paper. These queries help the researchers refine their ideas, review their findings, and double check that their data, and their analyses, are correct.

This sometimes quite lengthy peer-review process is to ensure that journals publish scientific articles that make a real contribution to our understanding to the field, whether it’s chemistry, biology, physics, social science, or any other subject.

2.6 Million Studies a Year

On the order of 2.6 million scientific studies are published every year, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Given the explosion in published science—today there may be as many as 30,000 peer-reviewed journals providing scientists an outlet for their findings—it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between good science and bad science.   

Good science is work that has a high level of integrity and transparency, is conducted in an unbiased way, and leads to findings that can be replicated by other scientists. 

Bad science is often ego-driven or industry-sponsored: published not for the good of advancing knowledge or helping people, but to mislead the public, often for financial gain. For-profit industries have and continue to use bad science to convince consumers to buy their products.

Junk Science

Recent history shows how “junk science” can have negative repercussions that harm human and planetary health.

  • In 1948 a husband-wife team at Harvard University, Olive Watkins Smith and George Van Siclen Smith, published an article that asserted that a synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) not only prevented miscarriage but also made a normal pregnancy “more normal.” Drug manufacturers copied and distributed the Smiths’ study to thousands of medical doctors to encourage them to prescribe DES. The Harvard research was shoddy at best: they used a sample size of pregnant women that was too small to draw statistically significant conclusions and had no control group. The Smiths also failed to disclose that their research was funded by the drug industry. Largely based on this junk science, an estimated 5 to 10 million pregnant women in America took DES. Yet DES was neither helpful nor benign. It caused miscarriages and an aggressive hormone-induced reproductive cancer in teens whose moms had taken it. DES was banned for use in pregnancy in 1971.
  • Starting in the 1950s the tobacco industry began a sophisticated public relations campaign to counteract the peer-reviewed science that showed that smoking was harmful to human health. Though it was known by 1953 that smoking caused lung cancer, industry-sponsored science so effectively muddied the scientific waters that the connection was not acknowledged by public health authorities until the early 1990s.
  • In the 1990s, when biologist Tyrone Hayes found out that a common pesticide, atrazine, was so endocrine-disrupting that it turned male frogs into females, Syngenta, the company that makes the pesticide, did everything it could to keep this information from the public. Two class-action lawsuits revealed that Syngenta had the goal of publicly discrediting the scientist’s reputation in order to make environmentalists question the validity of his research. Publishing poorly designed studies that could not be replicated was an effective strategy to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating their $14 billion a year pesticide and seed sales. In 2014, as reported by The New Yorker, Syngenta was giving research money to 400 academic institutions around the world.

‘Sneer-Review’

The research that scientists publish affects their job prospects, livelihood, reputation, and even friendships. Given the explosion of scientific publications, it is easy to see how the peer-review process can go awry. 

The Epoch Times spoke with a professor who spent more than 25 years in a top 10 medical school. This scientist did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.

“I call it sneer review,” the scientist said. “There is tremendous bias. Reviewers ignore data that doesn’t fit with what they already believe. 

The scientist said that certain fields have fewer problems with special interests than others, and certain topics—including the safety of modern medicine and, especially, the safety of vaccines—tend to push ideological buttons. 

“The idea in science should be that we just push towards finding out the answer. We have a hypothesis, we ask questions, we test the hypotheses, we collect more data,” this scientist said. “That’s how we move forward. But when it gets polarized, the sneer-review phenomenon starts to happen. Then it becomes a more ideological confrontation.”

“People will try to publish total nonsense for ideological reasons,” the scientist added.

When Ideology Drives Decisions

When peer-reviewed studies have the potential to harm multi-billion-dollar industries, they often get retracted, several scientists told The Epoch Times. 

“Follow the silenced science,” said Dr. James Lyons-Weiler, CEO and Director of the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge (IPAK). Lyons-Weiler has published more than 50 peer-reviewed studies on a variety of topics. He recently had a controversial study retracted. 

It is especially difficult to publish research that calls vaccine safety into question in the first place, Lyons-Weiler said, and these studies are often summarily retracted by controversy-adverse editors. 

“They tend to be retracted after critique by anonymous critics,” Lyons-Weiler said. “This is a problematic new development. The journals are retracting based on criticism from anonymous reviewers, instead of publishing the critique and allowing the authors to rebut. That means the critics’ comments are not peer-reviewed.” 

The retraction may happen a week after the science is published, or more than 10 years.

Canceling Critics, a Technique to Silence Science

A Danish medical doctor who worked for the pharmaceutical industry for almost a decade, Peter Gøtzsche saw firsthand how his bosses would manipulate data that did not fit their industry agenda. Largely as a result of that frustration, Gøtzsche co-founded the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit initiative with an explicit goal to keep bias out of science.

For years the Cochrane Collaboration was considered the gold standard of unbiased information and Gøtzsche, who himself published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and eight books, hailed as a crusader for scientific integrity.

In September of 2018, however, Gøtzsche was voted off Cochrane’s board (six in favor, five opposed, one abstention). This move led four board members to resign in protest. He was also fired from his position as director of the Nordic Cochrane Center and suspended from the hospital where he worked. 

Gøtzsche told journalist and documentary filmmaker Bert Ehgartner that he believed his dismissal was because he and two co-authors criticized a Cochrane review that found “high-certainty evidence” that a vaccine against human papilloma virus (HPV) protected women and girls from cervical precancer. Gøtzsche critiqued the review, pointing out that Cochrane had excluded almost half the trials and ignored glaring safety signals about the vaccine. 

A hero of scientific integrity to many, Gøtzsche is now being ostracized by his colleagues and characterized as “an industry scold.”

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