Remember how I’ve been discussing the hallmarks of conspiracy culture? Well, according to Michael Barkun’s Culture of Conspiracy (2006), one of the most important markers of what separates a conspiracy theorist from your run of the mill zealous advocate of an unusual idea is the simultaneous rejection of mainstream academia while creating methods for appropriating its prestige and approval. The zealous advocate pushes his (and it’s almost always his) ideas through traditional channels and respects the foundations of scholarship (even if he is blind to his idea’s weaknesses), but the conspiracy theorist rejects the traditional channels and demands that his ideas be exempt from the types of review and scrutiny given to all others. Typically, this is due to a deep distrust of academia or the belief that there is a system-wide conspiracy designed to suppress the truth that the conspiracy theorist is somehow uniquely poised to reveal, if only the guardians of orthodoxy would let him.
This is a rather long way of saying that on his blog yesterday Scott Wolter has decided to expound on his beliefs about peer review, which he sees as riven with “territoriality, competition for funding, runaway egos, intimidation, threats of retribution, favoritism, and ordinary personal pique.” I will let the irony speak for itself. Most of Wolter’s blog post is devoted to complaints against Richard Nielsen, his onetime research partner, and it is not my place to involve myself in their interpersonal recriminations. (Disclosure: I have exchanged emails with Nielsen and discussed the Kensington Rune Stone with him even though I do not agree with all of his views.) Wolter also complains about Wikipedia for being overrun with skeptics. At the beginning and end, however, he briefly addresses his putative subject, academic peer review, which he does not seem to fully understand.
According to Wolter, peer review is considered a sacrament of academia, a magical process whereby the bread and wine of research are converted through priestly blessing into the body and blood of Truth. That’s not me exaggerating Wolter’s ignorance of what “peer review” means. It’s what he honestly believes:
If this review process is so perfect, then why has it not been able to accurately answer the question of the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone, Bat Creek Stone, Spirit Pond Rune Stones, the Newport Tower, and Tucson Lead Artifacts? The fact is academic peer review and publishing process has failed miserably. Further, defenders of the “faith” refuse to look inward and take a critical look of their sacred process to try and figure out what went wrong. Instead, they turn a blind eye to obvious failures, dig their heels in and attack those who dare to question.
How does one even begin to address such ignorance? Peer review doesn’t determine “truth”; it is designed to evaluate whether a researcher has followed proper academic protocols (and sufficiently described them) and therefore whether an article is worthy of publication. Publication does not establish a claim as true; indeed, you can and do find peer-reviewed articles, sometimes in the very same issues of academic journals, that take wildly opposing views on the same subject—yet they have all passed peer review. Consider the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus flap ongoing right now; articles both for and against its authenticity can be found in the current Harvard Theological Review, a peer-reviewed journal. Yet if Wolter were right, this simply should not be since the fragment contradicts his straw man version of academic dogma, and the differing opinions “dare to question.”
All of the subjects Wolter mentioned above have been the subject of peer-reviewed articles, some many times over. These articles have presented compelling evidence for why each of these “mysterious” objects, artifacts, and buildings are not what Scott Wolter claims them to be. His problem seems to be that he doesn’t like the answers scholars come up with and therefore concludes that peer review is suppressing alternative views.
He therefore again reiterates his belief that his work has been “peer-reviewed” in a different way because he is a professional geologist. He claims that as a professional his work receives review from fellow geologists, but he provides no evidence of which peers have endorsed his views on Templar conspiracies, where his findings on specific artifacts have been published, etc. Nor does he explain how geologists reviewing his work on concrete, or even the age of rocks, speaks in any way toward his interpretation of said rocks to support a world-historical conspiracy involving thousands of years of suppressed truth about the hidden line of goddess worshipers who run the world in secret; even if he is right on all the geology, this does not imply that his interpretations of history are necessarily correct, or even coherent. He purposely conflates his geology (which has its own problems) with his grand conspiracy theory as though they were one and the same. It’s akin to asking a botanist to explain the Dutch tulip mania of 1637; yes, it involves flowers, but classifying the bulbs will only take you so far.
I’m really tired of listening to “academic” bloggers and Amazon power-trippers using arrogant posturing and name-calling trying to claim sovereignty over scientific method and the peer review process. Instead, we would all appreciate it if these people would stop trying to dictate what they think is proper scientific method and start practicing it.
If I may extend Wolter’s earlier hierophantic metaphor a bit, thus is the hoc est enim corpus meum of the priests transformed into the hocus pocus of the wizard standing before the cathedral doors, proclaiming that his mystery is the real way and the truth. Thus does Wolter declare ex cathedra that opposition to his conclusions is little more than “faith” (“If you don’t ‘believe’ they are genuine, then be happy in your ‘faith’…”) while he is the true hierophant of knowledge, possessor of the one true peer review, and the practitioner of the purest science. He speaks rather like Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the cathedral door, proclaiming a reformation, except that Martin Luther had first been in the Church before he condemned it and knew whereof he spoke.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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