I reviewed articles for two scholarly journals yesterday, one of which was quite good and one of which had a very good empirical analysis embedded in a badly biased introduction and conclusion.
It becomes more and more challenging to maintain my equanimity as I review articles which have such clear implicit — and, frequently, explicit — biases. In fact, not long ago my frustration boiled over onto Twitter and I nearly got in trouble for violating the confidentiality of the peer review process.
In trying to understand the divide over guns in America, I have been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. I am 1/3 of the way through and I find it quite compelling so far. Part of his argument actually helps me to better understand my experience peer reviewing papers on guns.
Haidt argues that we place too much faith in the power of reason to guide us to truth (he is an intuitionist not a rationalist). He maintains that “reasoning” has “evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people” (p. 104). Rather than seeing something like confirmation bias as “a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind),” it is better to view it as “a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind)” (p. 105).
Haidt is quick to add that he does not conclude that “we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings.” Rather, “we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason” (p. 105). Good reasoning is a group not an individual accomplishment:
We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. (p. 105)
What is the implication of this perspective for peer review in a (social) scientific field of study? Haidt concludes:
This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).
I suppose to the extent that I can use my individual reasoning power to highlight the biases in others’ work on guns, I am contributing to that good reasoning as an emergent property of the social scientific community.
But one person — or a few people — is tokenism not real diversity. And being a token can be awfully tiring.