The outfit worn by an American teenager has been subjected to rigorous “peer review.” Likewise his hairstyle, his lingo, and what he passes off as his opinions. In fact, we might say that he is, in toto, the product of the “peer review process.” Or what anxious sociologists used to call “peer pressure.”
Academic peer review is engineered somewhat differently, but its purpose and effect is the same. It produces conformity, or what we are told to call, with intonations of reverence, scientific consensus.
I am not saying that the propositions presently endorsed by the “scientific consensus” are always or exactly like the coquettish rips that presently enhance the blue jeans of young women, but that they are often much more like those tears than you may suppose.
In other words, a lot of peer review is just “butt sniffing.”
I use this vulgarism to demean the august phrase “peer review,” to “knock it from its pedestal” and turn out its “seamy side.” I am not a great expert on this matter, but I have written academic articles and edited academic journals, and so over the last thirty years have read hundreds of “peer reviews.” And in these the probing snuffle of butt sniffing was by no means a minor note.
What I mean by “butt sniffing” is, of course, the canine method of identifying a member of the pack. Applied to the academic world, it denotes the method of ascertaining who is “one of us,” a good one, a member of the tribe. In the narrow world of peer review, butt sniffing is evident in a fanatical focus on eccentricities of jargon, solecisms in the bibliography, or quibbles over methodology.
All of these are telling, since, in academic writing, few things are so transitorily fashionable as the jargon, bibliographic entries, and approved methodologies. All of these things change, the point of peer review being to ensure that everyone changes them together and all at once.
Just like girls with coquettish rips in their blue jeans. Or like a flock of starlings whirling through the sky. Or like a pack of snuffling dogs.
My experience is, of course, limited to a marginal field in which the standards are not especially rigorous, and my opinion is no doubt colored by the fact that, upon sniffing my butt, my peers have been inclined to snarl with mistrust. But I don’t think my view is entirely the result of a life spent glowering at sour grapes in a third-rate vineyard. I think it is the result of the fact that peer review is mostly butt sniffing.