Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

When Scientific Evidence is Ambiguous, Private Philosophies Matter

SPOTLIGHT: Conflicts of all sorts impact scientific judgments.

BIG PICTURE: While some discoveries are easy to measure and easy to verify, much of science is about groping in the dark. Only fragments of the big picture are actually known. We humans mentally fill-in the missing pieces according to our pre-existing worldviews.

Stanford professor John Ioannidis regularly urges researchers to pull up their socks. In a recent opinion piece in an influential medical journal, he calls for a more sophisticated understanding of conflict-of-interest.

We’re used to thinking in purely financial terms: scientist Smith received funding from company X; her conclusions about its products are therefore likely to be biased. But most scientists, he says, develop “favorite theories.” Not only do they defend these theories strenuously, some go further by writing books and indulging in political activism despite the fact that “a key aspect of the scientific method…is to not take sides.”

When a scientist pronounces on nutrition matters publicly, Ioannidis says we have a right to know if that scientist is privately committed to a particular philosophy. For example, a hardcore vegan is unlikely to be evenhanded when a reporter asks his opinion of a bacon-and-eggs diet.

Because scientists make food choices every day in their private lives, Ioannidis thinks nutritional research is in a class of its own. There are, however, parallels with environmental science.

If a researcher privately believes humanity is a plague on the planet, the public has a right to be informed of this fact. Individuals such as the research centre deputy director who went without a refrigerator for 12 years and “cut back on washing and showering” in order to reduce his fossil fuel emissions are unlikely to evaluate climate evidence in an entirely neutral manner.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Because scientific research often yields ambiguous results, scientific judgment calls are a fact of life. We need to remember that these are influenced by multiple kinds of conflict-of-interest.

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