Peer Review Is Worse than the Internet

The internet can be really smart and effective sometimes. We’ve seen examples where impressive things have been figured out by people on internet platforms like Reddit, Facebook, TikTok or 4chan.

In the Netflix documentary Don't F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, a Facebook group helps catch a criminal. They outperform the police in some ways like research skills and global interest (he commits crimes in different cities, and from unknown cities, which is hard for local police departments to deal with).

4chan quickly found a flag in multiple places in the world based on a livestreaming camera pointed at the flag. See The Triggering of Shia | He Will Not Divide Us (part 1 of 6) by Internet Historian on YouTube.

Reddit beat some large hedge funds that were shorting Gamestop stock. More mundanely, the Ask Historians subreddit is often a better read than journal articles, and usually much better if you’re looking for the answer to a specific question. The historical answers mostly come from experts – some of the same people who write journal articles. But the internet lets them share more information that journals don’t, so I’d give the internet credit for making some good resources more accessible and useful here. The internet can also be good for giving a voice to less popular experts with contrarian viewpoints or experts who are bad at social climbing or refuse to social climb, or just really productive experts with more to say than journal publishing allows for. Most experts don’t get most of their ideas published in journals.

(There are also cases of failure like some Reddit users misidentifying the Boston Marathon bomber. Peer reviewed journals also fail and spread misinformation sometimes. Also the police sometimes get the wrong guy and then sometimes treat him abusively and get a false confession. The police are another mainstream system that the internet sometimes does better than.)

Open forums, often with anonymous people, have achieved impressive stuff when motivated to (not everything gets much attention). The internet sometimes outperforms peer review. This shows that letting literally anyone post anonymously, with no gatekeeping, is compatible with effective discussion, rather than guaranteeing a bad signal-to-noise ratio. We don’t have to have authorities who judge who is dumb and exclude those people in order to get good results from discussions.

Some factors may lead to the internet being less effective, like a technical field involving a bunch of specialized knowledge that most people don’t have. However, the internet can be surprisingly good even in hard cases. Even if only a few people know or care about something, the internet can help them find each other. Stack Exchange websites can be good for math and physics. The internet is especially good for knowledge related to computer programming.

The internet has helped many people with medical issues who were not helped by credentialed doctors or academic journals. Posting about your symptoms on TikTok can get responses from other people with the same disease (who may have already seen a dozen doctors and been misdiagnosed for years before finally figuring it out). Watching TikTok can be more helpful than reading academic journals. Asking for help on TikTok can get you better help from credentialed doctors, as well as non-doctors with relevant knowledge (like patients with experience dealing with the same disease), than asking your own doctors.

Merely browsing TikTok can help people find out about medical conditions they didn’t know they had. Medical videos sometimes have many thankful people in the comments who hadn’t asked for help but got help anyway. This is similar to how Target’s data analysis can figure out that people are pregnant before they know (and then Target can send coupons for maternity products to their home mailbox that their parents may see). TikTok’s algorithm can show people relevant medical information, even if they weren’t searching for it, due to correlations with the topics they watch. (Of course, it’s also possible to get misinformation on TikTok, or to get accurate information about a disease you don’t have.)

Academia doesn’t appear to even be trying to figure out how to harness and benefit from groups on the internet researching something. Why not? Why haven’t some journal editors been impressed by some internet research and then come up with plans to use it to benefit academic research? If journal editors were rational, you’d expect them to be interested in progress instead of defending their fiefdoms. I don’t think they’re all too old and out of touch to understand the internet. Maybe primarily only social climbers are allowed to become journal editors, so they’re the type of people who don’t want to acknowledge value in alternative social hierarchies.