An interesting article turned up on the BBC website today; apparently, a student has discovered fundamental calculation errors in a seminal 2010 economics paper making the case for austerity. I am not an economist, and I have not read this paper, so I do not care to speculate upon the public policy implications of this*; however, that really isn’t the subject of this post.
Rather, I’m writing to point out that in my experience, such errors turn up much more frequently then most people would probably like to think. When I first began conducting research, I made the mistake of thinking that academic papers, having made it through peer review, are infallible. This, I soon found after many months of brutal frustration trying to reproduce results which just didn’t add up, is definitively not the case. The fact of the matter is that peer reviewers, being peers, are human and therefore are prone to making mistakes. Perhaps they were lazy; perhaps they were tired; perhaps the author made a particularly common error which her reviewers then reproduced. You hope that if you have enough of them, this will not be the case, but statistically, some of them must get through. I might also suggest, though, that such errors might be more common in fields like economics, where the political biases of the reviewers may cause also play a role, consciously or otherwise, in their decision.
*Though, honestly, I think austerity isn’t really doing anything other than exacerbating income disparity.