Monday, February 08, 2010

Suzan Mazur - Perpetually Clueless

Suzan Mazur is the "journalist" who attended a meeting on evolution, misunderstood nearly everything that was going on, and has now cashed in on her misunderstanding by writing a book. Needless to say, the people who organized the meeting were not amused.

Now she's back, as clueless as ever, with an article at Counterpunch on peer-review.

She claims "Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini report colleagues attempted to silence them from publishing in their new book that Darwin's claim was wrong about natural selection." But somehow these attempts failed, since not only did Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini manage to publish their book, but they also got a long article in New Scientist about it. What was the nature of these "attempt[s] to silence them"? Mazur, the eminent journalist, doesn't tell us, but she does refer to "dark forces". (No, really!) For some amusement, read the comments in New Scientist on the article of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmirini. A rough estimate shows that about 90% of the comments are negative to their claims, pointing out that the article is misinformed and inaccurate.

I'd be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that these "attempt[s] to silence them" consisted of their friends telling them they would make laughingstocks of themselves if they proceeded to publish their half-baked ideas. And their friends were right.

Mazur asks, "Why not just thrash these ideas out in the open as in other professional fields[?]" But in fact, there is peer-review in all professional fields. Try to get an article published in a law review or an engineering journal while demanding it not be peer-reviewed, and see how well you do.

Clueless Mazur says, "I was curious how journal reviewers are paid...". Well, that just shows she knows absolutely nothing about peer-review. But her own ignorance of the system is not the fit subject for an article.

She then asks, "What then is the incentive? Why do these extremely busy scientists work as slaves?" but doesn't manage to find the answer. Here are the reasons:

1. Every field has a certain deontology. In science, you are, as a member of the community, expected to do things like review grant proposals, referee papers, and write letters for students and colleagues. Only very rarely do you get paid to do this. Those who don't pull their weight are essentially freeloaders on the system.

2. By refereeing papers, you (sometimes) get to see interesting ideas before publication. By making suggestions, you get to help shape the ideas and the presentation. Heck, if you have something worthwhile to say, sometimes you even get to be a co-author.

3. By refereeing papers, you get to learn what other people are working on. Sticking to your own ideas can sometimes be sterile.

4. When it comes time for your annual report to your department, showing that you are refereeing papers is a sign that your work is respected in the community.

5. Finally, I'll quote what Leonard Eugene Dickson said when asked why he spent 10 years of his career writing the 3-volume History of the Theory of Numbers: "it fitted with my conviction that every person should aim to perform at some time in his life some serious useful work for which it is highly improbable that there will be any reward whatever other than his satisfaction therefrom".

Mazur asks, "But could such journal board positions simply be fast-tracks to publication of an editor’s or an editorial board member’s own work and a tool for access to grant money?" No, to the first. It is considered a conflict of interest for a journal to allow an editor to handle his/her own paper. I edit a journal, the Journal of Integer Sequences, which would be a good venue for much of my own work. But none of my work is published in that journal. As for a "tool for access to grant money", whether someone referees papers or not is rarely or never considered in deciding whether to award a grant. Service on editorial boards may help you a little, but not as much as good work.

Mazur gives other stories about authors who've had trouble getting their paper published. She sees it as conspiracy or incompetence. But she fails to consider the most parsimonious explanation: papers usually get rejected because they are crap. I just got a paper rejected because I and my co-authors didn't know about some previous work, but you don't see me whining about it. Instead, we'll rewrite the paper and make it better.

Mazur seems to find it incomprehensible that a paper can get rejected within 36 hours. I edit a journal, so I know what they're like. I have rejected a paper even quicker. It is pretty easy to tell whether a paper is completely bogus or out of scope for my journal. When a paper gets rejected that quickly, it's a fair bet that one of those two reasons applies.

Too bad there wasn't some peer review for Mazur's own uninformed and silly article.


Jonathan Lubin said...

Jeff, you say, “Service on editorial boards may help you a little [in getting a grant], but not as much as good work.” I can tell you, as a former Program Officer at the NSF, that such considerations just don't arise in the decision process for award of grants. It's the research only, both proposed and past, that is the sole determinant.

Ty said...

Her article seems to boil down to, "Science is mean to people whose ideas suck."

Uh, yeah. And?

SLC said...

The fact that her article appeared on the counterpunch web site is an indication that anti-science is not limited to the far right as counterpunch is a far left wing web site.

Valhar2000 said...

anti-science is not limited to the far right

If only it were!

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Absolutely right - and Counterpunch has some nutty ideas.

Venture said...

"Why not just thrash these ideas out in the open as in other professional fields[?]"

All ideas can be thrashed out in the open. It's called the internet. But that's not what they actually want. They want the distinction that results from good quality control without exposing themselves to any actual quality control.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

I really envy those who find such misconceptions of Science amusing. When I read/hear them, I tend to feel whether bored or sad.

Midnight Rambler said...

Re: why papers get rejected - I admit my experience is fairly limited so it may not be representative. But so far three of the four times a paper I've submitted has been rejected or come under significant criticism, it's been because the reviewer completely misread the article (one read "nonsynonymous DNA mutations" instead of "synonymous", thus reversing the whole point!) or had a personal agenda.

In the fourth case, both reviewers had the same valid criticism, but one said to revise it, and the other said to reject and submit it somewhere else - namely, a journal the he just happened to be the editor of (non-anonymous reviewers in this case).

Also, on papers I've reviewed that had glaringly bad problems, like captions not matching figures, I've often seen the other reviewer's comments saying nothing more than "It's fine, you just had a couple of typos here and there."

So, while it's hardly the conspiracy that Mazur makes it, there are holes in peer review big enough to drive a truck through.

Anonymous said...

Midnight Rambler, there's no doubt that the peer-review process isn't perfect, but it's a much better system than you are describing, at least in my fields of research. It seems really strange to me that you would ever get to look at other reviewers' comments as a reviewer. What field are you in where you have access to other reviewers' comments as a reviewer? This brings into question your credibility as a critic of the review process.

Yes, anonymity for fear of reprisal.

G. Landry said...

The above comment by Ty just inspired me to start a recurring section on my own blog. See Quotable Quotes 1, with commentary

Midnight Rambler said...

Anonymous @2:25 - I'm in biology. And it's the journal's decision to CC the full comments that go to the authors to the reviewers as well, it's not a case of me seeking them out; most don't, but a few do. How on earth does that "bring into question my credibility as a critic"?

Also, the non-anonymous reviewers I mentioned above agreed to let their names be known, it's not like I unveiled their anonymity. Arguably that's another, probably insurmountable, difficulty with peer review - it's often very easy to figure out who reviewers are given the limited number of people who are qualified to comment, and the style and content of their review. I almost certainly could have figured out who they were anyway.

Marion Diabolito said...

I heard her on the Jeff Farias show, and I couldn't agree more. And I've done science journalism and realize how hard it is, because you're never allocated enough time and it's always low priority.

Shorter Suzan Mazur this time:

blabla psychobabble feel good slogan blabla David Noble blabla I'm far too stupid to understand peer review blabla maybe you should get this from David Noble first-hand blablba if I don't understand something, I want it eliminated.

Just hair-pullingly stupid and deceptive. Worse, when you look up david noble and peer review - the only things you find are -- her Suzan Mazur, in an interview with him, going, "So, isn't peer review terrible?" "Don't you hate peer review, David Noble, science expert?" and finally him saying, "Oh, yeah, peer review IS bad, isn't it! Away with it!"

And he's a "Luddite" who doesn't use email, and presumably the internet much, so she can say anything she wants and unless he miraculously hears it on the radio, which is apparently sabot-friendly enough, he won't gainsay her.

He's kind of a social constructivist history philosophy and criticism of science scholar.

Peer review is not censorship, though, any more than critical reviews and letters and counteracting papers are.

Brad Fallon said...

I might to encourage literacy and numeracy with my grade sevens, they are perpetually rude, unprepared, clueless, and just plain duh. I love teaching and I enjoy my job, but I worry for the future. Do you feel it is:
- uninvolved parents
- technology (instant gratification)
- more learning disabilities
- allergies
-, jk. Thanks!

Ronaldo said...


Jeffrey Shallit said...

Yup, Ronaldo, that explains the publication of papers like Stephen Meyer's. Pick an obscure journal and you can get a lot of drivel published.