Using creationist peer review

Two weeks ago, I wrote a short post criticizing Answers in Genesis and their journal, ARJ, for their handling of an exchange between two different writers, the pseudonymous “Jean O’Micks” and biologist Todd Wood. In it, I argued that AiG’s claims of having a proper, peer-reviewed journal were less than concrete, given that their handling of issues was more geared toward establishing authority than promoting good scholarship or academic inquiry.

After two responses from Todd Wood (here and here) and a follow-up from Jimpithecus of Science & Religion, I thought it useful to pen a follow-up of my own.
In his first response, Dr. Wood pointed out that “Jean O’Micks” is not, in fact, officially affiliated with AiG, any more than he himself is. That was my mistake; I assumed that the bio page for O’Micks represented an affiliation, but AiG has this for all its contributing writers, including Dr. Wood (though if they ever had one for me, it has now been excised). So I definitely stand corrected on that point.

Wood also stated that both the articles I referenced in my original post were, in fact, letters to the editor rather than full refereed journal articles, and thus it isn’t irregular to publish them simultaneously. Here’s where it gets a bit dicey, not because I doubt his explanation, but because ARJ’s editor, Andrew Snelling, apparently made no effort whatsoever to distinguish between letters to the editor and actual articles. That’s a problem.

The whole point of peer review is that it identifies scholarship which has been evaluated by peers. Scientists and researchers learn to trust peer review because they know it has been read and examined with a critical eye, both for careless errors and for systematic errors. Peer review is the dam which holds back the flood of pseudoscientific nonsense (although this doesn’t prevent creationists from trying their damnedest to slip things in). Creationist publications like the Answers Research Journal are creationism’s way of claiming legitimacy.

That’s not to say that individual creationists who submit to publications like ARJ are insincere. Nor are their submissions useless; in many cases, as in the debate over H. naledi, the breadth of discussion illustrates very well the earnest attempt to make their models work. Creationist organizations now make a practice of referring to their “professional, peer-reviewed technical journal(s)” and claiming that “evolutionists are unaware of our scientific literature”. It is because the models do not, in fact, work that we have an opportunity to use their own work against them, highlighting clearly where the different models proposed by different authors are plainly incompatible. Creationists are trying to fit a 4-billion-year-old peg into a 6-thousand-year-old hole, and it shows.

Wood contends:

MacMillan concludes that our exchange shows that all creationist journals “lack any actual rigorous peer-review process.” Since MacMillan doesn’t seem to have any firsthand experience with creationist peer review, that’s a bold claim to make. Frankly, I’ve had more hassle from some creationist reviewers at JCTS than I’ve had publishing in some noncreationist journals. Creationist journals aren’t all one thing, and they definitely aren’t created “as a way to legitimize their claims of scientific and doctrinal authority.”

Obviously, it takes more than one example to establish a trend. As I said in my original post, those of us on the outside have no way of knowing how much “hassle” submissions receive from reviewers, or what sort of things they would hassle about. Anticreationist blog Eye on the ICR has previously pointed out that the lack of relevant field experts makes creationist peer review logistically challenging, since there are only the barest handful of degreed researchers in any given field which espouse young-earth creationism, and they often disagree emphatically. We know that creationist peer review has failed dramatically when dealing with actual errors, so it’s not unreasonable to conclude that creationist peer reviewers are more concerned with maintaining a doctrinally-driven status quo than in vetting the analytical validity of submissions.

I have no reason to doubt Wood’s claim that the creationist peer review process is lengthy, but that’s not the point. Even though it’s entirely possible for analytically valid research to get into a creationist journal, as exemplified by Wood’s own response on the H. naledi question, we can still draw conclusions from the way that creationist organizations use their journals. Creationism is about maintaining an authoritative position, and the kind of honest criticism required for good science doesn’t really help them. So while creationists tout the “high quality research” in their publications, the way they respond to challenges – like another creationist claiming H. naledi is part of the human family tree after they’ve already decided it isn’t – says a lot more.

We can’t know for sure whether Snelling’s choice to solicit a response from O’Micks was motivated by an authoritarian mindset, but it’s likely. More importantly, the publication of both responses as if they were fully refereed articles, with no indication that they were “letters to the editor”, makes the claim of rigorous peer review all the more amusing. What use is peer review if it is applied selectively? Who decides which articles receive peer review and which ones do not?

The answer? It doesn’t matter, because Snelling and AiG aren’t interested in publishing research; they’re interested in publishing articles that make creationism seem reasonable.