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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.

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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.

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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.

  • I cannot off the top of my head imagine an argument more wrong-headed than Proof by Sarah Palin. So congratulations on breaking new ground.

    And it’s ironic that you do not seem to realize that what you mock Palin for is what RPR mocks “gender scientists” for: judging on the politics.

  • What a very foolish argument. When you call those papers easy targets you admit they are specious bullshit. Specious bullshit clogging the system is worth calling out, and mockery is the best way to do that.
    Nor is this bullshit harmless. Standards of proof are eroding. This matters. Universities are filling up with this kind of academic, who sit in judgment on students in hearings, kangaroo courts, grade appeals, dissertations. This matters too. Real researchers and real teachers are denied funds, squeezed out by bullshit. This matters.

    And it’s funny.

    • In my experience (15 years of being staff (not faculty)) in hard science faculties in a Russell Group university) I can confirm that in all that time I came across three academics (out of about 400) who viewed politics as anything more than a waste of time that could be better spent in the lab.
      Of these three, one was a former chief scientific advisor to two politically opposing governments (and regarded pretty much all politicians in much the same way as the rest of us would regard a new and interesting species of cockroach), one was moderately right wing and one was moderately left wing.

      In order to allow the benefit of the doubt to be applied to a given field, that field must have some doubt about it. There’s very little doubt about astronomy and hydrodynamics, there’s also very little doubt about gender studies, but the other way.

  • 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 creation science is hopelessly politicized and worthy of scorn admits the possibility that astronomy and hydrodynamics are, too.

  • Comparing @NewRealPeerReview with Sarah Palin talking ignorantly of fruit flies would only be fair if you could identify a single Gender studies paper that added any scientific knowledge that was useful.

    As far as I am concerned as a humanities student, this is just babble. Instead of saying “I will talk about my experiences and feelings while sleeping with people of other racial backgrounds” they say they will use an “auto-ethnography”.

    Other social scientists – I am thinking the likes of Gad Saad and Jonathon Haidt – have pointed out that certain branches of social science are so politically undiverse that they cannot produce objective work, and instead produce work that supports a foregone conclusion.

  • “Accepting that a field like gender studies is hopelessly politicized and worthy of scorn admits the possibility that astronomy and hydrodynamics are, too.”

    False. Gender studies is a branch of critical theory, which is the application of Marxist ideas to areas beyond economics. Marxism is a political ideology, not a scientific theory, and it explicitly rejects empiricism, which is the foundation of science.

    As a scientist, I find it absolutely insulting that gender theorists, who produce no mathematical models, do no experiments, gather no data, discard no theory due to falsification, and are largely so ignorant of statistics that when they do hit on the idea of trying to gather some numerical data, they don’t even think to calculate the standard deviation, let alone the margin of error, want to be called scientists.

  • This article completely misses the mark. @RealPeerReview does not ridicule social science research papers because they fail to “find the scientific merit in studies of vampires, witches, and sci-fi serials” or for “being too arcane, or a waste of taxpayer funding” (although both of these are true.) RealPeerReview demonstrates that these papers are born out of ideological and political motivations and exposes their lack of objectivity and scientific rigor. These papers are not shared by RealPeerReviews because it is scientific research which “sounds like a waste of taxpayer money”, but because it isn’t scientific research! So to say that “accepting that a field like gender studies is hopelessly politicized and worthy of scorn admits the possibility that astronomy and hydrodynamics are, too” is completely asinine. You’re comparing apples to tinea. The obscurantist truth-is-a-social-construct approach of postmodernist social science is completely antithetical to the impartial empiricism of the scientific method. Science has no room for politics. Science (or misrepresentation/denial thereof) is often selectively used to confirm political opinions, but this is not a feature of science itself!

  • “Accepting that a field like gender studies is hopelessly politicized and worthy of scorn admits the possibility that astronomy and hydrodynamics are, too.”

    No. Not even close. No one is saying that gender studies is worthy of scorn because it’s “hopelessly politicized.”

    What we are saying is that gender studies is worthy of scorn because it isn’t science. Which explains why it is so politicized, and why it is differentiated altogether from astronomy and hydrodynamics.

    When the majority of gender studies papers actually involve hypotheses that can be tested against data collected in a systematic and controlled environment, then maybe I’ll be willing to listen to your complaints. Until then, keep your garbage to yourself.

  • The conflation of real peer review with Sarah Palin shows a complete ignorance of who is behind real peer review and what is actually being said. Most of what they critique isn’t science. It’s garbage. As someone who has had to meticulously gather data over many years using hundreds of source documents just for just one publication, I appreciate NewRealPeerReview for critiquing the value of the work of those who score an equally sized line on their CV for merely having a conversation with their children about gender roles and parenting. Is that real scholarship in Gender Studies? Ok. But then Gender Studies (and most of what NeeRealPeerReview) critiques isn’t science. It’s something else. Valuable? Maybe, I’m not sure I’m the best person to say. But if what’s being examined or proved isn’t falsifiable it isn’t science… Rendering most of your arguments mood.

  • “Another problem with faulting research for its political content is that knowing where to stop is impossible. [CITATION NEEDED] The lines are completely arbitrary and subjective [CITATION NEEDED]”

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