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Christopher "Tanoro" Gray is a web programmer and science advocate especially concerned with resource management technologies, biology, and artificial intelligence. He is a student of epistemology and philosophy as well as an Atheist competent in Christian theology.

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HOME > Tanoro's Blog  >  Follow the Money? Don't be Stupid
Follow the Money? Don't be Stupid
Posted by: Tanoro - Nov 17, 2012 10:32am

I wasn't going to post this as a blog, but I am having to repeat myself on this topic so often that I just need to get it all out. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes on my blog knows that I'm a science advocate and also an activist. Within the activism community, there is a common disconnect from the science community because science is an establishment and some activists tend to be anti-establishment right down to the meta level. I am told that science only works if the study in question was "independent," which they usually mean "independent from any profit-oriented conflict of interest." I hold this heuristic as borderline stupidity. Here are a few samples of how this argument comes up.

What is your reaction to scientists who are funded by private interests who, generally, work for results that favour said private interest groups? Would you simply say that they aren't truly scientists?

And this guy.

Thinking that with today's parameters science can't be bought is naive. The core of my argument remain : Until a truly independent study is done and profit and greed are removed from the process, we may never know for sure.

If a given study was funded by anybody, I would hold it to the same degree of skepticism and scrutiny that anyone -- I repeat -- anyone deserves. The beauty of science is that no claim is regarded as true or even credible just because one or two scientists support it, no matter who their investor is. Academia is a global community of experts and there must be a consensus behind a given claim before it can be regarded as credible. Getting peer reviewed is necessary, but not sufficient. This is why I don't pay any attention to propaganda from big pharma or the results of FDA trials. Neither are academic sources and both can be bought off by profit interests. Peer review cannot.

For example, opponents of water fluoridation often point to a Jennifer Luke paper published in Dental Caries, 2001. It has just over 50 citations, many of them by the same small minority of people (Russell Blaylock, Gary Null, the Connett family, etc.) with less than impressive reputations. This paper represents so little credibility that I, as a layman, am justified in dismissing it. In contrast, the Robert Gallo paper from the early 1980s addressing HIV has thousands of citations from experts all over the world. These citations represent endorsements from a multitude of experts who work for a variety of employers, attended a variety of universities, and live beneath a variety of governments. If this many experts all agree that Robert Gallo was onto something, it is difficult for me to declare the result biased, no matter who funded it. You can't get much more objective than this.

In truth, I don't give a damn who funded the research. Private ventures are able to get good results and non-private ventures are able to fake results, so the heuristic is flawed. Either the global scientific community is able to independently repeat the experiment and offer their endorsement or they can't and do not. That is all that matters to me.

The "follow the money" heuristic is dumb and intellectually lazy, not to mention subjective. One of the big reasons I have issues with it is that it does only one thing. It suggests that you disregard any claim that may be supported by a profit-oriented conflict of interest, implying that you should trust whatever doesn't. Here is the dangerous part of this heuristic. Profit motive isn't the only kind of bias! 

The Discovery Institute is infamous for bullshit science, such that they have been forced to start their own "peer review" journals to published and cite each other's work. Of course, nobody reads them, so their journals have no impact factor. The Discovery Institute has almost no profit motive. They are completely non-profit and have no government or mainstream corporate affiliations, yet they are biased toward whatever results can be used to promote their religious agenda. Whoops! A non-profit basis for biased pseudo-science! Why didn't I see that coming?

Additionally, there is also good old-fashion human error. Errors get published in peer review all the time by honest mistake. This is why peer review is a necessary, but insufficient, step in any given research becoming widely accepted. Peer review helps take care of all of this, which is why we are suppose to be relying on it and not simply taking the word of some quack with a college degree or some random group of independent nobodies who don't appear to be operating under your favorite bias.

For more information on how the process actually works and why it is reliable, see The Scientific Method Made Easy by science journalist, Peter Hadfield. I also suggest reading my blog, Science: the Bias Barrier. For some of you out there who are within my activism communities and subscribe to the "Follow the Money" heuristic, let's get something straight. Peer review is not perfect. It doesn't need to be. It only needs to be "most reliable." If your argument is that it is too unreliable to trust it, you had best be able to suggest a less biased method that doesn't violate the principles of epistemology or get your ass off the Internet and move into a cave. You don't get to enjoy the fruits of science while criticizing it when it disagrees with your bias.

This blog is an editorial and contains only the opinions of the author. The author claims no expertise on most topics of discussion and this blog is not to be cited as an alternative for properly vetted journalism or scientific sources.

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