Activist movements have morphologies. At this moment the national sports concussion fight, like many others, is bogged down in a fetish over “peer-reviewed scientific literature.” I argue that a lot of the vaunted peer-review process is pompous bunk – a ritual by elites to demonstrate their eliteness while giving aid and comfort to the status quo.
Peer review is a bit like another academic institution: tenure in higher education. The concept is that it promotes intellectual freedom. But in all too many cases, those who have it don’t need it, and those who need it don’t have it.
In 2007 Chris Nowinski started his Sports Legacy Institute in Boston and got the brain of dead pro wrestler Chris Benoit for Dr. Bennet Omalu to study. When the Boston group announced that Benoit (who, at age 40, had murdered his wife and their 7-year-old son before killing himself) had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the corporation of professional liars that had employed him, World Wrestling Entertainment, derided the finding as “not published in a peer-reviewed journal.” Then, when Omalu published a paper about it in a peer-reviewed journal, it was “only” the Journal of Forensic Nursing, not one of the high-end publications like Neurosurgery. Of course, the reason was that Omalu, for a time and for all intents and purposes, had been blackballed by Neurosurgery, which was in the National Football League’s pocket. Earlier this year Omalu did resume publishing in Neurosurgery; I’m waiting for the next pointless excuse from the naysayers.
Some of us who admire Nowinski’s work with SLI and want to see its mission succeed worry that he is falling into the peer-review trap. We also worry that the NFL’s $1 million grant to SLI’s sister Center for the Study of CTE at Boston University will become part of a larger pattern of delay and dilution.
The Boston group has said that it is moving away from announcements to journalistic outlets and toward releasing findings only after they are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. They made an exception 11 days ago with the Dave Duerson press conference because, Dr. Robert Cantu explained, they always bow to the wishes of the family.
But even assuming that the policy is plausible, I believe the wishes of the family are precisely the wrong exception. As a result of Nowinski and company’s own logic and energy, sports concussions are a major societal issue. Instead of pontificating about peer review and then making exceptions when it’s convenient, I would rather hear the response to a call from Omalu, in his forthcoming Neurosurgery article, for new protocols allowing automatic CTE study of postmortem brains of certain populations, such as athletes in contact sports.
Please don’t tell me I’m being simplistic. I’m being simple. Obviously, there’s a role for editorial gatekeepers – in academia, journalism, and elsewhere. The point is that we don’t need to study 500 more dead football players’ brains before coming to common-sense conclusions about important actions and political solutions. Take it from an old college dropout: peer-review rhetoric is mumbo-jumbo.