Science as a Bendable Vocation

October 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the New York Times has three items today suggesting that greed, for want of a better word, isn’t always so good – not for the public and not for science. These articles suggest that corporations sometimes deliberately distort science in order to subvert the general welfare so that they can increase their profits. I hear you gasping in disbelief.

You’re right. It would seem a commonplace observation except that so many people in such influential positions think that the profit-seeking efforts of huge investment funds and energy companies and chambers of commerce all bring unalloyed good to everyone.

1.  In an op-ed, Luigi Zingales warns about scientists nudging their research in directions favored by the people who bankroll them. Would scientists risk their reputations for a few pieces of silver? Under some conditions, yes.

A paper can be misleading or economical with the truth even when not blatantly false. . . . And reputational concerns do not work as well with sealed expert-witness testimony or paid-for policy papers that circulate only in small policy groups.

Then there is what Zingales calls “a scarier possibility”

that reputational incentives do not work because the practice of bending an opinion for money is so widespread as to be the norm.

Zingales does not give any estimate of the location of norm’s current boundary or the prevalence of such bending.

What triggered Zingales’s op-ed is Congressional testimony by economist Robert Litan and Litan’s related paper on consumer protection regarding retirement plans. It turns out that the paper was commissioned by the Capital Group, a trillion-dollar investment group not notably favorable towards consumer protection. The Capital Group generally underwrote Litan’s research, as Litan acknowledged; but they also commissioned this specific project, a fact Litan did not deem important enough to mention. Not surprisingly, the paper found that protecting consumers vis-a-vis retirement-plan brokers would be too costly.

(Zingales, by the way, is no lefty. He teaches at a business school, the Booth School of Management at the U. of  Chicago. I expect that neither he nor Booth see his mission as radicalizing future MBAs.)

It’s not just economists. For a long time we’ve known that research sponsored by drug companies finds drugs much safer and more effective than does independent research (see here, for example).. But government-sponsored research has decreased, and research by Big Pharma has grown. As Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine said in 2009,

It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

2. Also on the op-ed page (here), Naomi Oreskes discusses the efforts of Exxon (later Exxon-Mobil) to undermine the findings of climate scientists. Internal Exxon documents going back forty years show that the company’s own scientists were telling them that carbon-based energy would change the global climate.

In 1989, the company helped to create the Global Climate Coalition to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change and prevent the United States from signing on to the international Kyoto Protocol to control greenhouse gas emissions. . . . Journalists and scientists have identified more than 30 different organizations funded by the company that have worked to undermine the scientific message and prevent policy action to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Oreskes likens the Exxon-Mobil tactics with those of tobacco companies decades earlier – a strategy to “promote a message of scientific uncertainty” where the science was in fact settled.  Of course today, tobacco companies today wouldn’t take such drastic efforts to undermine anti-smoking policies, would they?

3. The front page of the Times has a story about the Chamber of Commerce becoming the champion of the tobacco industry. The Chamber has traditionally worked for the interests of business in general regarding tax policy and regulation. Under new management in the person of Thomas J. Donohue, the Chamber is taking up the cause of smoking at home and especially abroad. And you thought “Thank You For Smoking” was a comedy.

True, their second-highest official has said, “The chamber is not opposed to tobacco regulation. Declarative statement. We don’t support smoking. Declarative statement.” Declarative but false.

The chamber’s own letters, many of which have been published in The New York Times, show the extent of the tobacco campaign, including an attack on excise tax in the Philippines, cigarette advertising bans in Uruguay and restrictions on smoking in public places in Moldova.

Needless to say, the tobacco industry and the Chamber also do research. Guess what the research finds.

During his first stint with the chamber in the early 1980s, [Donohue] was called on to calm restive cigarette makers, who were angered by a chamber health booklet that said smoking increases absenteeism. Mr. Donohue invited the tobacco industry to “supply some additional data” for a revised version, according to a letter later made public. Within a few years, the industry was citing chamber research that found “smoking has no influence on an employee’s likelihood of being absent.”

Philip Morris directed the chamber’s work on a polling project surveying attitudes about government-funded litigation. The chamber took the lead in public, while “PM stays in the background,” a Philip Morris memo outlined. The cigarette maker selected the polling firm and reviewed the questions.

Three articles in one day (and I haven’t read the whole newspaper). Maybe the Times save all its tilted-science articles for Saturday. Or maybe it’s just the Times, and if I had instead looked at the Wall Street Journal I would have found articles about all the unbiased research done by virtuous corporate-sponsored scientists.

No comments: