Monday, 27 June 2022

Bizarre and Trivial Analytic Metaphysics… and Clenched Fists

Philosopher Craig Callender believes that “many debates in analytic metaphysics are sterile or even empty”. Is he right about this?

“We divide analytic metaphysics into naturalistic and non-naturalistic metaphysics. The latter we define as any philosophical theory that makes some ontological (as opposed to conceptual) claim, where that ontological claim has no observable consequences. We discuss further features of non-naturalistic metaphysics, including its methodology of appealing to intuition, and we explain the way in which we take it to be discontinuous with science.” -

— — From ‘What is Analytic Metaphysics For?’

According to the philosopher Craig Callender (in his paper ‘Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics’), it’s the case that

“mainstream analytic metaphysics has moved further away from scientific concerns at the same time that philosophy of science has moved closer to science”.

Prima facie, Callender’s position is similar — though obviously not identical — to that expressed by the logical positivists (in the 1930s and 1940s) when it it came to various (or even all!) metaphysical issues and disputes.

Callender continues:

“The reason is that it’s hard to imagine what feature of reality determines whether a fist is a new object or not. How would the world be different if hands arranged fist-like didn’t constitute new objects?”

The begged answer is: No difference whatsoever.

Take also the case of the English philosopher A.J. Ayer (1910–1989) when he was writing about the rival claims of metaphysical pluralism and monism. In his book Language, Truth and Logic, he wrote:

[T]he assertion that Reality is One, which is characteristic of a monist to make and a pluralist to controvert, is nonsensical, since no empirical situation could have any bearing on its truth.”

Since logical positivists have just been mentioned, it seems clear that Callender is also asking for a kind of positivist answer to his questions. That is, he’s asking if these questions can — at least in part! — be answered by experience. The analytic metaphysician, of course, would say that such “positivist” questions are themselves… well, meaningless. Of course experience (or the empirical) is irrelevant to these questions. Or, at the very least, experience alone can’t answer them. Indeed experience alone couldn’t even answer any of the logical positivists’ questions. And that’s because experience alone can’t answer any question.

Not that all those who have a problem with analytic metaphysics also have a problem with metaphysics when it’s seen more generally.

Not All Metaphysics is Bad

Callender puts the case that one can be against much (or even all) of what’s called analytic metaphysics and yet still not be against metaphysics itself. He states:

“I come at the question simultaneously convinced that many debates in analytic metaphysics are sterile or even empty while also believing that metaphysics is deeply infused within and important to science.”

Moreover, it’s not only that one must accept metaphysics even when one also places science in an — or the — important position. It’s simply that one simply can’t avoid metaphysics — not even in science itself.

Callender continues:

[W]e have these concepts, ‘metaphysics’ and ‘sciences’. There is no sharp difference between the two. To a rough approximation, we can think of metaphysical claims as more abstract and distantly related to experiment than scientific claims.”

And finally:

“I think that what we conventionally call science in ordinary affairs is inextricably infused with metaphysics from top (theory) to bottom (experiment). If this is right, metaphysics is deeply important to science. Laying bare the metaphysical assumptions of our best theories of the world is a crucial and important part of understanding the world.”

Yet, seemingly, not all analytic metaphysicians ignore science.

Analytic Metaphysics and Science

Take the American philosopher Ted (Theodore) Sider.

Sider claims not to ignore or disparage science. He also sees (much?) analytic metaphysics as being “quasi-scientific”.

In his paper ‘Ontological Realism’, Sider writes:

[Analytic metaphysicians’] methodology is rather quasi-scientific. They treat competing positions as tentative hypotheses about the world, and assess them with a loose battery of criteria for theory choice. Match with ordinary usage and belief sometimes plays a role in this assessment, but typically not a dominant one. Theoretical insight, considerations of simplicity, integration with other domains (for instance science, logic, and philosophy of language), and so on, play important roles.”

It may also be interesting to mention panpsychism and idealism here.

Panpsychists and idealists (or at least some of them) have the same position as Sider on this aspect of the debate. That is, they see their own isms as being quasi-scientific. For example, analytic metaphysicians stress

“competing positions as tentative hypotheses about the world, and assess them with a loose battery of criteria for theory choice”.

And panpsychists and idealists too emphasise “simplicity”, “integration” and (to use a word often used by panpsychists) “parsimony” (see here).

This isn’t a surprise.

All sorts of unlikely candidates have been seen as being quasi-scientific — or indeed, just plain scientific. To take two obvious examples (i.e., other than idealism and panpsychism): Marxism and Freudianism were — and sometimes still are — seen as being scientific. Indeed the Austrian-American philosopher Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) even stressed the scientific nature of astrology and voodoo (see here).

For example, in his book, The Trouble With Physics, the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin (when he was discussing what makes something a science with Feyerabend himself) wrote:

“Was it because science has a method? So do witch doctors. Perhaps the difference, I ventured, is that science uses math. And so does astrology, he responded, and he would have explained the various computational systems used by astrologers, if we had let him… Newton had spent more time on alchemy than on physics. Did we think we were better scientists than Kepler or Newton?”

All this means that we need to be careful when philosophers and theorists drop scientific technical terms into their writings. Or, alternatively, we need to be careful when theorists or philosophers include only certain aspects of science; though who, at the very same time, ignore (or reject) what could very well be far more scientifically important or relevant when it comes to the legitimacy of their non-scientific (or strictly philosophical) claims.

So now let’s take a few seemingly extreme positions in analytic metaphysics (or plain metaphysics, for that matter).

Take Peter van Inwagen.

Bizarre Analytic Metaphysics: Craig Callender’s Clenched Fist

The American philosopher Peter van Inwagen (1942-) believes that only elementary particles and living organisms exist. That is, he believes that cups, tables, planets, etc. don’t exist…

In his book Material Beings (1995), Van Inwagen argues that all material objects are either elementary particles or living organisms. (It’s the case that every “composite object” — by definition! — is made up of elementary particles.) Van Inwagen concludes by arguing that tables, chairs, bikes, etc. don’t exist.

We can immediately ask three questions here:

1) Does Peter van Inwagen believe that such …s don’t exist?
2) Does he believe that …s don’t exist qua objects?
3) Is it simply that van Inwagen believes that we have the wrong philosophical conceptions of …s?

Mereological nihilists also believe that only elementary particles (if not also living organisms) exist; or that they’re the only genuine objects.

Mereological universalists, on the other hand, believe that any arbitrary combination of otherwise separate objects can — or do — constitute a further object. (That means that your own left butt cheek and the sun above it can — or do — constitute a single object.)

It’s the nature of these metaphysical beliefs which are often deemed to be “bizarre” and “trivial”. (Can the trivial and bizarre exist side by side?)

And, as already mentioned, Craig Callender (quoting Eli Hirsch) asks the following question:

[W]hen I bend my fingers into a fist, have I thereby brought a new object into the world, a fist?”

Well, it’s certainly true that something must have changed when Callender bent his fingers into a fist. For a start, his hand changed its shape. So did that change — in and of itself —help constitute or bring about a different (or new) object?…

Does anyone know?

Does it matter?

Does this fist-clenching involve something (as Callender himself puts it) “deep [and] interesting about the structure of mind-independent reality”?

It’s hard to say because it’s difficult to understand the question. And even if the question can be understood, how would we know how to find a determinate (or even any) answer to that question?

We can excuse analytic metaphysicians by saying that this example — or other less bizarre ones — may provide us with the means to establish what an object is; as well as how we can decide that issue.

To repeat. We have a hand… surely that’s an object. Or is it?…

Then that hand has formed a clenched fist.

Is that clenched fist a different object?

If it is a different object, then why is it so?

If it’s the same object with a different shape, then why is it still the same object?

In any case, if we christen a clenched fist as a “new object”, “the same object”, or even “not an object at all”, then what ontological (or plain philosophical) difference would that make? That is, it certainly makes no practical or scientific difference; though is it still metaphysically “deep” or “interesting”? If it is, then exactly why is it deep or interesting?

We may agree with the Australian philosopher David Chalmers (1966-) here and say that this is merely a “verbal” dispute (see here); or a dispute primarily about definitions. That is, we are free to define a clenched fist as a separate object to a hand if we want to. On the other hand, we may decide not to do so.

So how could we decide which definition (or position) is the correct one?

Can we decide that issue — even in principle?

More relevantly, does this issue take us beyond the verbal and tell us something about the “structure of mind-independent reality”?

Indeed forget mind-independent reality:

What does this clenched-fist issue or position tell us about reality — full stop?

A mereological nihilist will (or may) argue that neither the hand nor the clenched fist are objects.

So does this position take us beyond the verbal or definitional? And if it does, then how and why does it do so?

The four-dimensionalist will (or may) argue that the clenched fist is a “temporal part” of the hand.

Again, does this position take us beyond the verbal or definitional?

A mereological universalist will (or may) argue that the clenched fist and the iron glove it comes in together make an object; which also includes the moon above the clenched fist in its iron glove.

So is this position taking us beyond the verbal or definitional?

Indeed if all these positions are essentially about definitions and verbal descriptions; then, arguably, we can conclude that they aren’t genuinely metaphysical positions at all!

Straw Targets?

If Craig Callender hadn’t chosen what can be seen as bizarre and absurd examples, then perhaps we can take such metaphysical positions more seriously.

The question is: Are they simply bizarre and absurd?

Take Callender’s next example.

This example seems even more bizarre and absurd than the one just cited. Callender writes:

[W]hether a piece of paper with writing on one side by one author and another side by a different author constitutes two letters or one [].”

One’s first reaction to this may be:

I simply can’t be bothered with it! Does it matter? Are there really metaphysical implications to this question? Is it, again, all verbal or definitional?

Nonetheless, one of Callender’s other examples does appear to be a reference to a more (as it were) concrete case. It was originally cited by W.V.O. Quine in his paper ‘Ontological Relativity’ (1968). Callender writes:

[W]hether rabbit-like distributions of fur and organs (etc.) at a time are rabbits or merely temporal parts of a rabbit.”

Quine — when talking about ontological relativity and the inscrutability of reference — used the example of rabbits in a specific field of vision. Yet this odd scenario was primarily motivated by the issue of interpreting the utterances of aliens — and even people here on earth — who spoke a language the researchers didn’t understand. Thus, in one respect, this isn’t (strictly speaking) a metaphysical issue at all. It’s either an issue in semantics or one in epistemology (perhaps both).

Friday, 24 June 2022

Ted Sider’s Metaphysical Realism

The American philosopher Ted Sider believes that “the realist picture requires the ‘ready-made-world’” and that “there must be a structure that is mandatory for inquirers to discover”. Is he right about all this?

Theodore “Ted” Sider is an American philosopher who concentrates on metaphysics. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University.

Sider has also taught at the University of Rochester, Syracuse University, New York University and Cornell University. He has had three books published and written many papers.

Introduction

Ted Sider (sometimes deemed to be an “analytic metaphysician”) tells us what he takes metaphysics to be.

Alternatively put: Sider tells us what he believes metaphysics should be.

In his paper and chapter, ‘Ontological Realism’, Sider writes:

“The point of metaphysics is to discern the fundamental structure of the world.”

What’s more, “[t]hat requires choosing fundamental notions with which to describe the world”. Indeed Sider continues by saying that “no one other than a positivist can make all the hard questions evaporate”. Finally:

“There’s no detour around the entirety of fundamental metaphysics.”

Sider also makes it plain that metaphysics asks fundamental and important questions by asking his readers this question:

“Was Reichenbach wrong? — is there a genuine question of whether spacetime is flat or curved?”

The obvious response to that question is say it’s a scientific (i.e., not a metaphysical) question… That’s unless it’s the case that metaphysicians (such as Sider himself) can offer insights on this issue which physicists (at least qua physicists) are simply incapable of.

More technically, Sider cites W.V.O Quine’s work (as well as the quantification of metaphysical structure) as the means to answer the question above (as well as other similar questions).

Ted Sider on Objective Structure

What is realist in Sider’s “ontological realism” is what he calls “objective structure”. This does the work formerly done (i.e., in the history of metaphysics) by such things as objects, events, laws, essences, kinds, etc.

The main force behind all of Sider’s positions is his metaphysical realism. That classification isn’t such a big problem because that’s how Sider (if sometimes implicitly) classes himself. For example, he writes:

“A certain core realism is, as much as anything, the shared dogma of analytic philosophers, and rightly so.”

It’s certainly not the case that “core realism” has been a “shared dogma of analytic philosophers”. That’s simply a generalisation. There have been anti-realists, idealists, positivists, pragmatists, instrumentalists and all sorts of other philosophers (even a small number of panpsychists) within analytic philosophy.

Thus Sider may (or must) mean something more subtle by his claim above.

Perhaps he means this:

Deep down and when push comes to shove, “realism is a shared dogma of analytic philosophers”, as it is for almost everyone.

Does Sider really believe that almost everyone (including all/most analytic philosophers) believes that the “world is out there, waiting to be discovered”? That may well be the case. However, it may only be the case in a very vague way — a way which often doesn’t amount to much. Indeed even most anti-realists and idealists, for example, believe that something is out there (see note).

In other words, there’s a world (or an x) that exists regardless of minds…

So?

And it’s what Sider says next that problematises his position.

Sider argues that this world that’s “out there, waiting to be discovered” and also that it’s “not constituted by us”.

Those two claims depend on so much.

Minds, conceptual schemes, language, sensory systems, brains, etc. don’t literally make the world in the sense of creating its spacetime, matter, forces, etc. (That said, some idealists — such as Professor Donald Hoffman with his “conscious realism”— do believe that.) However, minds may well — even if in some subtle or limited sense — structure/shape/determine/colour (or whichever word is appropriate) the world. That is, anti-realists — and almost the majority of philosophers — believe that we never get the world “as it is” in its pristine condition. More importantly and as Karl Popper and, later, Richard Rorty once put it: “the world doesn’t tell us what to say about it”.

In that sense, then, Sider is simply wrong when he argues that

[e]veryone agrees that this realist picture prohibits truth from being generally mind-dependent”.

The problematic word above is, of course, “truth” — and that usage may explain Sider’s ostensibly extreme philosophical position.

Ted Sider on Truth

Again, it’s simply not the case that “everyone agrees” that the world (or nature) is “generally mind-independent”. Sure, it may depend, for one, on how that phrase is taken. That is, people may well believe that truth is in some (or many) ways mind-independent. However, metaphysics itself is about the world and its “fundamental nature”.

Thus the truths Sider is talking about are about the world.

So do we ever have guaranteed truth in metaphysics?

We don’t in physics, cosmology and in all the other sciences. So perhaps we don’t in metaphysics either.

Yet, in once sense — a sense given by some metaphysicians and philosophers — truth is by definition mind-independent. However, Sider seems to be fusing that position with our metaphysical statements about the world.

So is it that we can argue that if such statements are true, then what makes them true is “mind-independent”? That doesn’t follow. At least it doesn’t automatically follow.

On the other hand, perhaps we simply don’t have metaphysical truths in the first place. Perhaps we only have metaphysical positions. And, as already stated, metaphysical positions involve mind, language, concepts, brains, psychologies, conceptual schemes, contingent sensory-systems, human intellectual and social history, etc. And all these things can be said to (rhetorically) pollute our metaphysical purity.

Thus perhaps we never have the Realist Truth Sider speaks of in metaphysics — analytic or otherwise.

Ted Sider on the Ready-Made World

Sider also states the following:

“The realist picture requires the ‘ready-made-world’ that Goodman (1978) ridiculed; there must be structure that is mandatory for inquirers to discover.”

There may well be a (to use a phrase also used by Hilary Putnam) “ready-made-world”. However, perhaps Nelson Goodman’s point was that we don’t have access to it except through our contingent minds, languages, conceptual schemes, brains, sensory-systems, etc. All those things make it the case that we must colour (or interpret) that ready-made-world. Thus, to us embodied human beings, it’s no longer a ready-made world: we make it (at least in a loose or vague sense).

What’s more, if all the above is the case, then grand claims about the independent nature of the world amount to very little.

The other point is that even if there is a mind-independent-ready-made-world, that doesn’t automatically mean that everyone — not even every realist philosopher — will says the same things about it. (The English philosopher Crispin Wright — in his book Truth and Objectivity — believes that we would say the same things if we all had what he calls “Cognitive Command”.) It doesn’t even guarantee that contradictory things won’t be said about this ready-made-world. Indeed contradictory things have been said about it — even by metaphysical realists!

So the world’s mind-independence doesn’t guarantee discovering Sider’s “mandatory structure” (just as it didn’t guarantee C.S. Pierce’s “future convergence”).

Yet Sider doesn’t accept any of this.

Instead, Sider believes that there are “predicates that carve nature at the joints, by virtue of referring to genuine ‘natural’ properties”. He continues:

“The world has a distinguished structure, a privileged description. [] There is an objectively correct way to ‘write the book of the world’.”

Well:

How does Sider know all that?

Does Sider know all that through metaphysical analysis and then referring to the “best science”?

Neither of these things can guarantee that we (not Sider’s words) “carve nature at the joints” or obtain metaphysical truths about the world. Again:

(1) How would we know when we have a “privileged description”?
(2) How do we know what that privileged description is?

What’s more, is there only one “objectively correct way to ‘write the book of the world”? Even if there is, then how does Sider know that?

Sider also gets to the heart of the matter (at least in the debate between metaphysical realism and what he calls “deflationism”) when he states the following:

“Everyone faces the question of what is ‘real’ and what is the mere projection of our conceptual apparatus, of which issues are substantive and which are ‘mere bookkeeping’.”

That’s certainly not true of “everyone”. It’s just true of many — not even all — philosophers. Sure, it’s true that many laypersons are concerned with what is real. However, they don’t also think in terms of the possibility that it’s our “conceptual apparatus” that hides — or may hide — the Real. Many laypersons believe that other things hide “what is real”: lies, propaganda, “the media”, politicians, religions, mind-altering drugs (or a lack of such drugs) and even science and philosophy.

Nonetheless, the philosophical issue of realism does indeed spread beyond philosophy. Take Sider’s comments on science.

Ted Sider on Science

Sider writes:

“This is true within science as well as philosophy: one must decide when competing scientific theories are mere notational variants. Does a metric-system physics genuinely disagree with a system phrased in terms of ontological realism feet and pounds? We all think not.”

Now take Donald Davidson’s less theoretical example of centigrade and Fahrenheit. According to Davidson, these are simply two modes of presentation of the same thing (see here).

However, Sider asks if the same can be said of “a metric-system physics” and a “ontological realism feet and pounds”.

Does Sider’s position have something to do with what’s called “empirical or observational equivalence” and theoretical underdetermination? If it does, then theories which are empirically equivalent needn’t also be theoretically (or philosophically) identical. Sider continues:

“Unless one is prepared to take the verificationist’s easy way out, and say that ‘theories are the same when empirically equivalent’, one must face difficult questions about where to draw the line between objective structure and conceptual projection.”

Sider also asks what he calls “deflationists” a couple of good questions.

Ted Sider on Metaphysical Deflationists

Firstly, Sider asks this question:

“Is your rejection of ontological realism based on the desire to make unanswerable questions go away, to avoid questions that resist direct empirical methods but are nevertheless not answerable by conceptual analysis?”

It’s hardly surprising — if we take the positions above (alongside the earlier reactions) — that Sider himself has heard “[w]hispers that something was wrong with the debate itself”. Despite that, according to Sider:

“Today’s ontologists are not conceptual analysts; few attend to ordinary usage of sentences like ‘chairs exist’.”

It’s tempting to say that ontologists should indulge in a bit of conceptual analysis!

That said, it’s not the case that conceptual analysis should be the beginning and the end of metaphysics; only that it may help things (just as a basic knowledge of science does).

Indirectly, Sider does comment on conceptual analysis; or at least on what he calls “ontological deflationism”. He writes:

“These critics — ‘ontological deflationists’, I’ll call them — have said instead something more like what the positivists said about nearly all of philosophy: that there is something wrong with ontological questions themselves. Other than questions of conceptual analysis, there are no sensible questions of (philosophical) ontology. Certainly there are no questions that are fit to debate in the manner of the ontologists.”

In terms of conceptual analysis and ontological deflationism being relevant to the composition and constitution of objects, Sider writes:

[W]hen some particles are arranged tablewise, there is no ‘substantive’ question of whether there also exists a table composed of those particles, they say. There are simply different — and equally good — ways to talk.”

Sider also attacks what he calls “conventionalism”.

Ted Sider on Conventionalism

Sider argues that if we accept conventionalism, then we “demystify philosophy itself”.

In his book, Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics (co-written by Earl Conee), Sider puts his case more fully:

“If conventionalism is true, philosophy turns into nothing more than an inquiry into the definitions we humans give to words. By mystifying necessity, the conventionalist demystifies philosophy itself. Conventionalists are typically up front about this: they want to reduce the significance of philosophy.”

That is strong stuff!

Is conventionalism really that extreme?

Is Sider’s account of conventionalism even correct?

At first blast, Sider’s passage above sounds more like a description of 1930s and 1940s logical positivism!

In any case, do conventionalists (if they exist at all) really argue that philosophy is “nothing more than any inquiry into the definitions we humans give to words”? Or do conventionalists simply stress the importance of our words and our conventions when it comes to philosophy?

Moreover, surely the conventionalist doesn’t believe that it’s only a question of word-definitions: he also stresses our concepts. That is, how do our concepts determine how we see, conceive of, or interpret the world? Indeed if it were all just a question of word-definitions, then conventionalists would be little more than linguists or even lexicographers.

Perhaps conventionalists, on the other hand, don’t give up on the world at all. Perhaps they simply argue that our words, concepts, conventions, sciences and indeed our definitions are important when it comes to our classifications, descriptions, analyses, etc. of the world.

Is Ted Sider a Platonist?

When Sider argues that “[b]y demystifying necessity, the conventionalist demystifies philosophy itself”, he implies that philosophy is nothing more than the study of necessity! In that case, it’s no wonder that the conventionalist (real or otherwise) “wants to reduce the significance of philosophy” if that’s really the case.

Sider’s position seems to be a thoroughly Platonic (as well as perhaps partly Aristotelian) account of philosophy (i.e., with its obsession with necessity and essence).

Is that really all that philosophy is concerned with — essence and necessity? Indeed, if the conventionalists’ supposed exclusive focus on word-definitions is wrong, then perhaps obsessing about necessity and essence is too.

Arguably, this was largely true of Plato and indeed Aristotle. But what about 20th- and 21st-century philosophers? Indeed what about Hume and many other pre-20th century philosophers?

Now we can see more evidence of Sider’s Platonist notion of philosophy’s role when he answers the question, “What is philosophy?”

Sider answers that question five times, thus:

(1) Philosophy “investigates the essences of concepts”.
(2) Philosophy “seek[s] the essence of right and wrong”.
(3) Philosophy “seek[s] the essence of beauty”.
(4) Philosophy “seek[s] the essence of knowledge”.
(5) Philosophy “seek[s] the essences of personal identity, free will, time, and so on”.

According to Sider, conventionalists believe that “these investigations ultimately concern definitions”. Not only that, according to the conventionalist, “[i]t seems to follow that one could settle any philosophical dispute just by consulting a dictionary!”.

It would be nice to know if there is such a conventionalist animal who really believes all this. As stated earlier, Sider’s account of conventionalism really seems like an account of 1920s and 30s logical positivism — or perhaps an account of the later ordinary language philosophy of the 1950s. And surely no contemporary philosopher is such an old-fashioned animal.

Again, Sider’s take on conventionalism seems thoroughly old-fashioned in nature. What’s more, his Platonist account of philosophy (or its role) seems even more old-fashioned. This, of course, isn’t automatically to argue that Sider’s positions are false or incorrect simply because they’re old-fashioned. It’s only to say, again, that they’re old-fashioned. So perhaps all Sider’s philosophical positions are still correct or true.

***************************

Notes:

(1) It’s interesting that Ted Sider stresses the importance of structure in both science and metaphysics considering the fact that analytic metaphysicians (ones just like Sider himself) are against, for example, ontic structural realists; whom also stress structure.

(2) An Objective Idealist (at least of a kind) can believe that, say, Universal Consciousness and “entangled conscious agents” are out there. And an anti-realist can believe that what’s responsible for “what we say” is out there; even though, when we say what we say, then that something we say is no longer about something that’s “mind-independent” — even if it is out there.




Tuesday, 21 June 2022

I Don’t Care If Your Position is Backed Up By “Peer-Reviewed Literature”!

Many people (often non-academics) mention “peer-reviewed literature” at the drop of a hat. The main reason they do so is to back up — or give kudos to — their own positions.

“I Would love to see how this topic is handled in credible peer-reviewed literature and not just scare tactic propaganda.”

Theresa Gorenc (see screenshot at the end)

On social media (especially on political “discussion forums”) many people (often non-academics) mention “peer-reviewed literature” at the drop of a hat. The main reason they do so is to back up — or give kudos to — their own (non-peer-reviewed) positions. This is graphically shown by the fact that such people never cite any peer-reviewed literature that puts positions they disagree with or which directly contradicts their own carefully chosen peer-reviewed literature…

[See how often the words “peer-reviewed literature” are used here.]

As a result of all this, the adjective “peer-reviewed” has become an easy cliché for many people.

But now it’s worth stating that this isn’t an essay against peer reviews — despite the title. And neither does it state that everything about the peer-reviewing process is bad. Indeed there may well be a need for peer-reviewing processes. What’s more, without peer-reviewing processes it can be argued that all sorts of rubbish would end up being published…

True.

However, all sorts of utter rubbish is published as a result of various peer-reviewing processes too!

So there are three main positions advanced in the following:

(1) Not everything that is “peer-reviewed” offers the truth, is of good quality, is trustworthy, rigorous, etc. 
(2) No one should simply
assume that everything that’s peer-reviewed is sacrosanct. 
(3) Citing peer-reviewed literature can often be a mindless and grandstanding way to back up positions that the citer holds anyway (i.e., what he or she believed long before finding any favourable
peer-reviewed academic research).

What’s more, often the people I have in mind don’t usually cite specific papers or literature (peer-reviewed or otherwise) anyway. Such people simply like asking whether the positions (or arguments, evidence, data, etc.) they don’t like (or agree with) have been… peer-reviewed. Thus, in these cases, such people don’t even feel the need to cite any actual peer-reviewed stuff which contradicts positions (or views) they don’t like. To them, what’s important is that they can simply make the point that the positions they don’t like haven’t been…. peer-reviewed. And that’s usually enough for them.

But what does the term “peer-reviewed” actually mean (i.e., beyond its literal translation)?

In non-critical terms, a “scholarly peer review” is used to determine a paper’s suitability for publication.

Yet isn’t it the case that almost all — or even literally all — published academic papers have been… peer-reviewed? That is, isn’t it the case that in order for any paper to have been published in any academic journal, then it must have been peer-reviewed… by at least two or more academics?

Now there’s the problem that peer-reviewing may not amount to much anyway.

Problems With Peer Reviews

Various commentators have noted the fact that academics can easily produce their own journal on their very own specialised subject or area — no matter how arcane or specialised it is. And when such a journal is created, then this automatically generates an entire sequence of peer-reviewed papers. That is, these academics and their journals — and perhaps some academics from related journals — peer review each other in what amounts to an incestuous circle jerk or echo chamber.

One important point that outsiders or non-academics (if any outsiders even care about these things) may not be aware of it is that submitted papers are usually reviewed anonymously by “peers” who’re deemed to be “experts in the relevant field”.

The obvious question here is this: What on earth guarantees the impartiality of such anonymous reviews? For example, what if there simply aren’t enough experts to give a good review? Indeed what if there is only one or two experts in any given field? In this case, won’t the reviews merely reflect the views, tastes and biases of those all-too-human reviewers?

All this means the following two things. (1) That the reviewers don’t need to rationalise their decisions face-to-face. (2) That the academics or postgraduates who submit papers are said not to know who’ll review them. (It can be strongly doubted that this is always the case.)

As a response to all this, alternatives have been suggested and even put into practice. For example, there’s such a thing as an open peer review. In this case, the reviewers’ comments can be seen by the readers of these academic publications. What’s more, often the identities of the reviewers are disclosed.

As stated a moment ago, various academics themselves have written critical papers on the peer-reviewing situation.

Self-Reference

Such academics have noted that it’s (fairly) easy to create a journal. They’ve also noted that peer-reviewing may be problematic even in cases of established and respected (but respected by which people?) journals.

Of course this creates a self-referential problem.

The academics who discuss the problems with the peer-reviewing process may themselves have been peer-reviewed and therefore involved at least some of the same scenarios. Yet this possibility depends on how many of these critical academics also use the term “peer-reviewed literature” as an easy, empty and bombastic means to bolster their own work and/or positions.

In addition, some of these criticisms of the peer-review process are themselves a little incestuous in that they aren’t of much interest to anyone who isn’t focussed on the minutia of forging an academic career.

But let’s just cite one example of self-reference, as found in the paper ‘Arbitrariness in the peer review process’.

You can tell that this is written by academics because of the gratuitous and almost pointless introduction of the word homophily. Indeed this paper itself self-referentially cites peer-reviewed papers which are critical of the peer-reviewing process. So perhaps this can be taken to hint at peer-reviewing being a “self-correcting process”… except for the fact that the vast majority of academics will neither have read these critical papers or even care about their findings.

Anyway, take this typical passage of pure academese:

“Lately, many studies have emphasized the problems inherent to the process of peer review (for a summary, see Squazzoni et al. 2017). Moreover, Ragone et al. (2013) have shown that there is a low correlation between peer review outcome and the future impact measured by citations.Footnote1.”

Now for a few more words on these (as it were) papers on papers.

More Problems with Peer-Reviewing Processes

Many studies (we need to quiz that term too) have noted the many problems with academic peer-review processes.

For example, it’s been shown that just because some paper has been peer-reviewed, that doesn’t automatically mean that this paper will be relevant, important, unbiased, sufficiently rigorous, and/or honest. And, more relevantly to academics, it doesn’t mean that it will bring about more citations than other non-peer-reviewed publications.

This latter fact about citations is, of course, a purely internal affair which probably won’t concern anyone outside the Academy. That’s primarily because it seems to be more about academic careers than about quality, rigour, relevance, importance, bias… or, indeed, anything else.

Another thing to note here is how arbitrary the whole peer-review process is… or, at the least, how arbitrary it can be.

Take the example of a change of a single reviewer employed by an academic journal and the fact this change can have a large impact of the results of the journal’s overall peer-reviews. Thus, in crude terms, a simple change in reviewers (even the arrival of a single new reviewer) can result in a dramatic change to what’s deemed to be publishable by that journal.

On a related point, any heterogeneity among referees may — and often does — lead to the basic arbitrariness of the entire peer-review process.

More importantly, what about the outright fraud, “post-truth” politics (or “lying for Justice”) and/or “misinformation” that’s been discovered in many peer-reviewed papers?

Take just one case, as highlighted in ‘Researcher at the center of an epic fraud remains an enigma to those who exposed him’.

The following passage (from this article) shows how deeply incestuous and self-protecting academia can often be:

“Sato’s fraud was one of the biggest in scientific history. The impact of his fabricated reports — many of them on how to reduce the risk of bone fractures — rippled far and wide. Meta-analyses that included his trials came to the wrong conclusion; professional societies based medical guidelines on his papers.”

What’s more:

“The 12 trials Sato published in high-impact journals have been widely cited. Many were included in meta-analyses, sometimes changing the outcomes, or were translated into treatment guidelines. Other researchers used Sato’s fake data as part of the rationale for launching new clinical studies.”

Yet this is an example from medical science and scientific technology (or applied science) — where standards are usually far more rigorous than in other academic disciplines!

One can imagine that, for example, political, sociological and other journals in the humanities are bound to have involved cases which are far worse — and far more frequent — than the Sato story. The problem is, however, unlike details on bone factures, unhappy patients, etc., it’s hard to uncover academic deceit when it comes to such journals. One main reason for that is that hardly any outsiders (or critics) read this stuff. This means that — at least sometimes — we essentially have various extremely secure academic fiefdoms.

So it’s no surprise that we also have the studies featured in this article: ‘Secretive and Subjective, Peer Review Proves Resistant to Study’. These particular studies showed that that there is nodirect evidence” that peer reviews actually improves the quality of published papers…

Sure!

And no doubt there are other peer-reviewed studies or papers which show the exact opposite… Yet that, in a strong way, demonstrates the point.

Because if all these problems, what’s been called “invalid research” has occurred many times — at least according to the academics who’ve looked into these matters.

In terms of problems that people outside the Academy may be concerned with, academics have also noted that the peer-review process can — and often does — lead to political, philosophical, scientific, etc. stifling conformity and uniformity.

Conformity and Uniformity in Academia

In simple terms and depending on the journal, controversial papers are often rejected not for their lack of quality or rigour, or because of clear bias, etc., but because they don’t meet the journal’s often implicit — though sometimes explicit! — standards of political, philosophical or scientific uniformity and conformity. (Not that reviewers will openly and honestly see political, etc. conformity and uniformity as their goals.)

And one consequence of such academic uniformity and conformity is that many of the postgraduates and academics who submit papers to these journals pander to the political, philosophical or scientific biases and “interests” of their academic editors and reviewers…

Indeed that’s obviously the case!

It’s the case because academics and postgraduates wouldn’t have submitted their papers to these particular journals at all if they weren’t aware of such biases and interests.

All the above, then, involves the issue of just how conformist, uniform and/or even obsequious a submitter wants to be in order to get published and — in the future — gain academic tenure. This also means that those who offer controversial or “radical” views may not — or simply will not — get a fair hearing… Unless, that is, the journal is self-consciously radical and/or controversial in nature! But that may — or will — only mean that such a journal is controversial and radical in only very particular political, philosophical or scientific directions… and not in others. So it also needs to be noted that being (self-styled or supposedly) radical, controversial or iconoclastic can also effectively mean that one is uniform and conformist in a radical way — at least within the these limited domains.

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Note: In relation to the screenshot directly above. It’s worth stating that any “peer-reviewed literature” I could have cited would neither have helped nor hindered the arguments I had previously put. That’s because my points didn’t even involve any factual claims or data. Instead, I was simply offering some arguments and analysing various concepts and assumptions. Thus, asking for peer-reviewed back-up in this instance was like asking a pure mathematician to cite peer-reviewed papers on ontology or even on gardening.