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Against Peer Review

You cannot discuss Corona or any other academic topic anywhere on the internet, without self-righteous small-minded debunkers demanding to know whether the studies you’re citing are peer reviewed. A lot of people, it seems, believe that there are no certain proofs or arguments, unless some random anonymous academics have approved them.

In my short time on this earth, I’ve done a lot of peer review. I’ve had my own stuff peer reviewed, and I’ve peer reviewed other people’s stuff. It is a cumbersome, arbitrary and worthless process. Whether any particular research has been peer reviewed or not, tells you nothing about its quality. What peer review does tell you, is that the peer reviewed item is very likely to be boring and to say more or less the same thing that all the other peer reviewed stuff says.

The purpose of peer review, is not to enhance the integrity or reliability of academic publications. Peer reviewed studies turn out to be wrong all the time. It is rather one of many mechanisms, via which academics aim to police their own discourse and exclude outside ideas.

I’ve written before about James Lindsay’s distinction between internet hive mind theories and ideas, and official establishment theories and ideas. The theories and ideas promoted by crazy anonymous internet people turn out to be far more dynamic, interesting and predictive, than the theories and ideas promoted by establishment media sources and heavily credentialed, tenured professors. The anonymous internet world is one with very low barriers to entry, many more participants, and ruthless selection for interesting, explanatory content. Here as elsewhere, there are many wrong and crazy ideas, but there is also a broader competitive process that weeds out the least defensible theories, and promotes the most interesting ones. Even when they are wrong, internet theories – by the time they come to your notice – have much more depth and texture to them than the intellectual products of establishment organs.

To save syllables, and widen the applicability of the concept, it is probably better to distinguish simply between curated and uncurated discourse. Curated establishment discourse was always managed and stifling, but before the internet, the people running it at least had the advantage of extensive networking. Professional organisations, periodicals and conferences are the main ways that professors network among each other and share ideas. Before the internet, people outside these academic networks remained comparatively isolated. They had their own local religious, social and professional networks, but it was not easy for them to build large networks around common intellectual interests. In this world, the gate-keeping mechanisms of academia excluded outside ideas, in much the same way as the press kept dissident politics out of the media and away from public notice for decades.

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