Only Trust Us

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, … for the Jews, …
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

PLoS Medicine:

While we continue to be interested in analyses of ways of reducing tobacco use, we will no longer be considering papers where support, in whole or in part, for the study or the researchers comes from a tobacco company.

Eric Crampton:

As good a [bias] case can be made … against tobacco industry funding. How many anti-tobacco public health researchers would be able to continue getting grants from Ministries of Health if their research found that smoking isn’t as bad as the Ministry might have thought?

John Tierney:

Many scientists, journal editors and journalists see themselves as a sort of priestly class untainted by commerce. … This snobbery was codified by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005, when it … refused to publish such work unless there was at least one author with no ties to the industry who would formally vouch for the data.  That policy … looked especially dubious after a team of academic researchers (not financed by industry) analyzed dozens of large-scale clinical trials in previous decades and reported that industry-sponsored ones met significantly higher standards than the nonindustry ones.


As Gary Taubes nicely illustrates in his book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” scientists who disagreed with the accepted wisdom on the evils of fat in the diet were accused of being corrupted by industry grants even if they had received most of their money from government agencies that were looking — unsuccessfully — for evidence to back the fat-is-bad theory. Meanwhile, scientists who went along with the conventional wisdom on fat weren’t criticized for the corporate money they’d received from food companies.

Mr. Taubes has also found some wonderful examples of selective journalism in the dispute over sugar’s health effect: An article stressing the harms of sugar would make dissenting scientists look bad by stressing their connections to the sugar industry, whereas an article exonerating sugar would make the other side’s scientists look bad by stressing the money they received from companies making sugar substitutes. …

“Scientists were believed to be free of conflicts if their only source of funding was a federal agency, but all nutritionists knew that if their research failed to support the government position on a particular subject, the funding would go instead to someone whose research did.” … Not-for-profit advocacy groups … “are rarely if ever accused of conflicts of interest, even though their entire reason for existence is to argue one side of a controversy as though it were indisputable.”

If the new principle is that we mustn’t publish research not funded by groups committed to proving our official beliefs, how long before “our” beliefs exclude yours?  How long before interdisciplinary journals like Science or Nature refuse to publish papers by economists, known for their suspiciously right-wing leanings, unless non-economist co-authors vouch for them?  Do you really think that can’t happen?

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  • So tobacco industry falsified a lot of research, and journals reacted by requiring extra standards from them to make such falsification more difficult. How is it a problem?

    This isn’t proactive ban on ideological grounds, it’s a reasonable response to actual fraud.

  • Indepent any evidence of fraud per-se, worries about who’s funding whom are legitimate based on general knowledge of human psychology. It’s well-established that humans are quite good of convincing themselves of things they have incentives to believe, and money from people with a financial interest in the outcome of the research is a very clear incentive. Even if we can’t eliminate all motivated cognition among academics, it makes sense to try to clamp down on the worst biasers. That doesn’t excuse being selective about noticing when conflict of interest might be a problem, or eliminate the possibility that government grants might pressure academics in less obvious ways. But those considerations don’t justify the comparison of efforts to control real issues of bais to the Holocaust, or provide any reason to think that people will make the leap from trying to prevent conflicts of interest to expelling an entire discipline from the academic community.

    • Sean

      I’m curious what fraud there was. The articles that mention fraud in the tobacco cases seemed only to mention the efforts to refute, without touching on the validity of the science. Which, to me, isn’t fraud.

      And the claims of tainted backing has always confused me. Don’t get me wrong, Sourcewatch is a great and useful thing. But many people completely ignore anything funded in any way by a group they don’t like. And most funding isn’t even enough to cover an administrator’s salary. I think some discounting should be used, but I share Robin’s view that they shouldn’t be written off. In all honesty, I don’t understand how someone can read a well-written article with proper methodology, and then decide to ignore it.

    • J

      “worries about who’s funding whom are legitimate based on general knowledge of human psychology”

      1. Ideology is an exponentially more powerful motivator than any financial incentive. If we’re going to be suspicious of a study funded by the wrong group, we should be considerably more suspicious of a study conducted by scientists with a history of research in support of some conclusion.

      2. Even if 1 wasn’t true, your logic would argue for equal or greater scrutiny of anyone receiving government grant money. How is their financial incentive any less than that of a tobacco company scientist?

  • Chris, how do you propose to estimate a degree of conflict of interest, aside from letting one side declare the other side to be more conflicted?

    Tomasz, is there a systematic study of the frequency of fraud from various sources, or are you jumping to frequency conclusions from particular examples? Did you see the finding that “industry-sponsored [studies] met significantly higher standards”?

    • Peter Twieg

      I agree with the basic suspicions of this decision, but isn’t there enough competition between medical journals that we should expect the PLoS to be damaged prestige-wise if this is a bad choice? We’re just talking about one journal here without significant monopoly power over publication.

    • My answer to your question should have been obvious from my first comment: I think we should focus on really obvious sources of conflict of interest. It’s far from a perfect solution, and I’m not sure I’d call it a way of even estimating anything, but prima facie it looks like an improvement over not actively trying to curb conflict of interest.

  • Chris, the “worst biaser” that creates the largest conflict of interest is a person’s own hubris and vanity. The second-worst corrupter is a person’s social circle — most people wouldn’t dare pursue honest tobacco research if they thought the findings would make tobacco look less harmful than previously believed (or that recycling was more pointless than was supposed, etc.), simply because they’d become a pariah.

    People who cynically shill for industry have nothing of the passion and evangelism that you see among those who believe out of vanity or peer pressure.

    Having funding from a government entity or industry at least means that someone other than you and your friends thinks the idea isn’t totally crazy.

  • Nanonymous

    Science or Nature refuse to publish papers by economists, known for their suspiciously right-wing leanings, unless non-economist co-authors vouch for them?

    Not sure about economics but it’s already happening in other fields. Climate science is the best example, psychology next. The policies may not be official but that does not make them any less effective.

  • Robert Koslover

    Ok, personally, I believe tobacco really is deadly. But I am not willing to censor those who disagree with me. For a taste of what can happen when dissenting and/or out-of-favor science is censored, Lysenkoism provides a useful and relatively-recent historical example:

  • My reading of the PLoS justification is in part “this is settled science–tobacco is clearly harmful and clearly has no medical benefit.”

    Many journals have said “we are not going to consider any more articles arguing whether X is true, because we already know the answer and don’t believe that further evidence provides a contribution to knowledge worthy of our standards.”

    It is a little more unusual for a journal to say “we are not going to consider any more articles written by X”, but I am sure that happens as well — in cases where an author has repeatedly proven to be a crank or unreliable.

    Given that the PLoS say they have evidence of systematic dissembling by authors funded from tobacco companies, their conclusion doesn’t seem that far beyond the pale.

    Crampton seems to be missing the point–it isn’t simply about the possibility of bias, but of seeing no point to further evidence on a settled point, especially if that evidence comes from sources that have demonstrated bias in the past.

    If Cornell researchers demonstrate a pattern of being misleading in their attempts to publish research on settled issues, I would expect to be right there with the trade unionists, and have difficulty getting my work considered by journals.

  • Bill

    Disclosure of funding is the cure.

    Unfortunately, even disclosure doesn[t help. I hire experts in antitrust litigation. In the US, you know which side someone is on based on the clients and prior testimony. Academics, being what they are, are also out looking for future income, and, based on observation, are eager to identify their IO research as relevant to a particular kind of client or industry.

    What is interesting is that Europe, until recently, didn’t have a litigation based demand for economic experts, at least in consumer cases. In my own view, their academics are less skewed, more objective, and do change their views based on current research. Not so the US.

  • @Robert: Ever read an “economic cost” report produced by the anti-tobacco side? Talk about demonstrated bias.

    I don’t think that the tobacco folks are claiming zero harms from smoking; rather, they’re arguing the harms are less than the anti-folks are saying and that links to things like second (or third) hand harms are tenuous at best. And I hardly think that claims around third-hand smoke are now settled science; didn’t they just make that one up?

    • Peter Twieg

      Exactly. If the PLoS announcement only excluded shoddy science that wouldn’t have survived the peer-review process anyways, why institute the policy? The rejection of tobacco-funded studies would simply be overdetermined.

      It seems like this policy is only useful for excluding studies which peer review doesn’t find fault with, but gosh darn it there must be something wrong with it because it’s funded by the evil tabacco industry!

  • Bill

    I might also add a caveat to disclosure as a cure.

    Businesses sponsor “centers” and “conferences”. Sometimes you can’t tell who actually is behind the “center” in terms of donation and governance.

    It is a bit disconcerting to see, for example, university sponsored research slammed by a “center” which sponsors other researchers and their research. Any research should be able to withstand attack, but sometimes the attack to university research is recorded in the public media, and the not followed up response to the attacker some months later.

    You have to worry when public relations firms are involved in arranging for and sponsoring research.

  • George Weinberg

    If the new principle is that we mustn’t publish research not funded by groups committed to proving our official beliefs,

    but of course it isn’t. As the PLoS editorial points out, other journals such as BMJ have considered and rejected such a policy, and PLoS Medicine hasn’t even received any submissions of tobacco industry supported papers since its inception.

    There really is nothing to see here. This is one journal making a decision we may or may not approve of, but researchers who rely on the tobacco industry are hardly being denied the opportunity to publish their work, let alone being dragged off in the dead of night.

  • I assume you heard about the story through the Offsetting Behavior post I linked to in “Big Bad News Ban”. I think you should have linked to Crampton’s response to the PLOS story rather than the older one referencing Tierney and nutrition.

    Econ Journal Watch discussed industry funded tobacco studies here.

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  • Proper Dave

    Just a moment, journals are private forums, allowed to exclude at will if conforming to the law were it is domiciled. So they are not going to exclude the jews because that would be illegal… regarding the exclusion of industry shills nothing wrong with that and is in fact perfectly proper if they want to maintain their credibility.
    So whats the problem again?

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  • Constantine

    Godwin and Slippery Slope argument all in one post, way to go.

  • Perhaps I am naive but could someone give me a quick rundown of why conflicts of interest are important? Is there any sophisticated thinking here.

    For example, isn’t it always in your interest to report results that advance your career. How often is someone rewarded for saying, “I spent fifteen years studying this and can with a high degree of confidence say that it is a complete dead end.”

    • Judith Rich Harris maybe.

  • I wonder if you can appreciate how offensive and fatuous it is to compare the fact that tobacco companies can’t publish their research in PLoS with the murder of millions of people. Probably not.

    Another comment: this is the Internet age, and anybody can put anything they want into the public discourse. What they can’t necessarily do is get the imprimature of an authoritative publisher like Science, Nature, or PLoS. These institutions set their own standards. Would you prefer that they didn’t have any?

  • Not directly connected, but this was just on the radio — a researcher who has results showing that a pesticide is causing catastrophic sex alternations in amphibians. This stuff is very common in the water supply and is likely to have an effect on human hormones. Guess what the industry-sponsored research shows? Who are you going to trust when it comes to your testicles?

  • Miranda

    I think this Eisenhower quote is apropos:

    “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. “

  • LetUsHavePeace

    Quoting Martin Niemoller is something that should be done warily. “They” – in the sense of the government – first came for the Communists in 1919, and lots of people spoke out. They even took to the streets and seized the government. If the Spartacist uprising in Berlin failed, that did not prevent the Communists and the Socialists from being the political majority until 1933. Niemoller ignores this inconvenient truth in his poem because he himself did “speak out” during this post-war period in Germany, but his speeches were against the Marxist Left and for the National Socialists. Niemoller was an early supporter of the Nazis, and so were many of the trade unions, whom the Nazis did not, in fact, “come for” at all. Hitler acknowledges that fact in Mein Kampf: “As things stand today, the trade unions in my opinion cannot be dispensed with. On the contrary, they are among the most important institutions of the nation’s economic life. Their significance lies not only in the social and political field, but even more in the general field of national politics.”
    Niemoller’s actual quarrel with the Nazis only came when the National Socialists decided that Protestant and Catholic Churches should once again become part of a State Church. This was not, in itself, a dramatic departure from pre-WW I Germany practice where each regional church, whether Catholic or Protestants, depending on which was the majority religion – received subsidies form the government and were ruled by a regnal house that was part of the government.
    The greatest of all the dishonesties of this bold declaration of opposition is that it needed several revisions before it deigned to include the Jews. In his 1946 radio broadcast of his poem, Niemoller did not even mention the Jews. It is only in the English republication in the 1950s in the United States that they were added to the list of sanctified victims.