Taking potshots at scientific research that sounds like a waste of taxpayer money is something of a pastime in American politics. The most prominent example was the Golden Fleece awards, conceived in the 1980s by Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin to point out studies and programs the Democrat found ludicrous.
The recent attacks on climate change by Donald Trump, Senator Jim Inhofe, and others — who declared such research a hoax worked up by rabidly activist scientists — belong to the same meme.
Notice, however, that these critiques rarely come from inside the scientific establishment itself. But sometimes they do. Consider @NewRealPeerReview, the Twitter handle for a poster (or possibly more than one) who is waging a social media campaign against what he or she feels are examples of politics run amok in the social sciences.
The popular feed, with more than 12,700 followers, halted briefly in June, reportedly because other researchers had threatened to out the poster. The Daily Caller, a right-wing website for news and opinion, gleefully covered the episode under the headline “Social Justice Warriors Declare Battle On Colleague For Exposing Their ‘Research.'”
We firmly support anonymous whistleblowers in science, and we have long praised sites like PubPeer that provide unnamed critics a forum to call out flawed research without fear of reprisal. But @NewRealPeerReview is something different.
Critiques of papers on PubPeer involve claims of potential misconduct or obvious errors in methods or analysis.
@NewRealPeerReview, on the other hand, seems to delight in ridicule for ridicule’s sake. And, like a good heckler, it chooses easy targets. Its darts have hit a 1991 study of “Sport in Vampire Society.” And another, from 2015, titled: “Gender in the Aftermath: Starbuck and the Future of Woman in Battlestar Galactica.” And this paper, published in 2002: “How Magic Works: New Zealand Feminist Witches’ Theories of Ritual Action.”
We agree that it may be hard for a passerby to find the scientific merit in studies of vampires, witches, and sci-fi serials. But that’s the point: You shouldn’t snark without taking a deeper dive, just like that old admonishment that if you’re going to write a negative book review, you’d best have read the entire book.
After all, snark is to peer review what sarcasm is to humor — the lowest hanging fruit to pick. (Trust us, as people who’ve been accused more than once of being snarky, we know.) Anyone can ridicule the rationale for a given study, particularly one that doesn’t involve the treatment of human illness, as being too arcane, or a waste of taxpayer funding.
The danger, though, is that it’s too easy to, as Steve Martin’s farcical “Grandmother’s Song” says, “criticize things you don’t know about.” That’s what happened in 2008 when then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin criticized federally funded studies of fruit flies during a speech in Pittsburgh. What Palin evidently didn’t know was that the flies she’d sneered at were a major bane of crops in California and that the research she derided turned out to be useful in the fight against the pests.
Another problem with faulting research for its political content is that knowing where to stop is impossible. The lines are completely arbitrary and subjective — which is the antithesis of science. Accepting that a field like gender studies is hopelessly politicized and worthy of scorn admits the possibility that astronomy and hydrodynamics are, too.
One answer, obviously, would be for politicians to keep their opinions out of science altogether. But as long as so much research is federally funded, that seems unlikely. And until the folks at @NewRealPeerReview start assessing the quality of the research they target, rather than take potshots at what they deem absurd premises, it’s impossible to know how seriously, if at all, to take their criticism.