Really, whom can you trust?

A discussion with a F/friend about whom can you trust revealed the very different prejudices we bring into discussions.

She said, “Follow the money.” Her sense of scientist is an industry scientist reporting what industry wants to hear. And it is true that an unfortunate number of scientists, particularly in medicine and public health, cannot be considered unbiased. Additionally, there are industry funded “think tanks”, aka propaganda machines, that produce treatises based less on research and thought and more on publicizing an propaganda. While people in the coal and oil industry are supplying interesting ideas to the discussion of carbon capture and sequestration, there is relatively little interest in the scientific community for their industry-financed ideas on whether climate change is occurring and whether it will be good or bad for us.

What does the phrase ‘scientific community’ mean?

One person I asked said that it is anyone who is sort of scientifically trained (it can be on the job) who does research in science. In his field, biotech, many of the early people were hired without science degrees of any sort, but some science knowledge and an ability to learn. Back when I was an electronics engineer, there were people like me who did the grunt design or other work, and others who seemed more tied into the theoretical discussions in Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

To others, it is the collection of people trained in science who contribute peer-reviewed research. Some of these people work in industry, but a check through one issue of Science magazine produced a list of people from universities, national labs, and other research institutes, and no one from industry.

What is the scientific community? To me and to many others, it is the set of people and ideas involved in this peer-review process. While much science is done in industry, it tends to be more science applications than producing models that can be tested.

Who pays whom and does it matter?

It is popular to point out that scientists are often government-funded, and it is certainly true that most university and national lab research is funded by the government, state or national. It does not necessarily follow that the information that people in government ever become aware of is information that pleases the people who signed the legislation. I have seen relatively little legislator interest in climate change, for example, comparable to the interest of government-funded scientists.

Is pay the only important factor? Ignacio Chapela of UC, Berkeley produced a paper for Nature magazine “documenting” the spread of transgenes (genes introduced from another species). Nature apologized for printing the article which contained numerous errors, the only one of which I understood was that the same technology showing spread of transgenes to Mexican corn also produced the same result in 40-year old seeds. I have become frustrated with the technical arguments opposing transgenic crops in part because so many of the reports in scientific journals turned out to be wrong later (and of course, a substantial number of the reports in the mainstream and other media never made it through peer-review).

There are other ideologues. When errors were found in the evidence John Christy and others had relied on to argue against some climate change conclusions, specifically that the atmosphere was not warming along with the Earth’s surface, their conclusions did not change substantially.

Many people tell me that they trust environmentalists who are dedicated to the public good. Yet there are others who are dedicated to the public good, such as holocaust deniers. I need more information to know whether I can trust a group. And there is a money trail in environmentalism. The contributions do not come fast and furious from people pleased to see their prejudices exposed and their eyes opened. Contributions to environmental groups often determine the focus of such groups. Why the focus on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and ignoring fleet mileage averages for vehicles? ANWR is in more danger from oil which is burned than from oil drilling (though I have never seen any analysis that indicates that drilling there makes sense). Yet ANWR protests are major fundraising opportunities for environmental groups. At the legislative discussions, the oil companies went to the CAFE standards discussions, and the environmental groups went to the ANWR drilling discussions.

Focusing on how someone else is polluting the world, through the use of nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops are also means of raising funds for environmental groups, and are often their weakest work.

My own rule is to trust more information that comes through some peer-review process. If National Academy of Sciences makes a mistake, there is a loud outcry from scientists, and articles in Science and other journals. When a member of the public or an environmental group makes a mistake, it’s business as usual.

That said, most people tell me that the science information they get from scientists, such as the summaries for policy makers that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produces, are too hard to understand.

What to do? Ideas and comments?

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Kathryn comments on an earlier post on Good and Evil with a very different take on environmental discussions. She “metaphorically somaticizes the living Earth and Cosmos”, receiving and interpreting information in a different manner than I do. We all contribute to the general understanding, we all learn and hear in different manners, and I appreciate her comments.

3 Responses to “Really, whom can you trust?”

  1. Pat Wolff says:

    Have you tried “Science News”? I get behind in reading it since it comes weekly, but the articles are usually very clear.

  2. Anonymous says:

    One thing that concerns me is hidden biases, even in the peer review process. I’m told by people who have to go through it that there is a strong bias in the journals towards research that shows results. Studies that show no effect tend not to get published. It’s easy to see how this could warp policy and perceptions of pharmaceuticals, and it’s likely to affect other areas of research in less obvious ways, if the one study that shows some finding gets published, and the hundred that fail to replicate its results – don’t.

  3. Rebekah says:

    Resigned to distrust

    I think that we all must become part of the peer review process and read everything with skepticism. To scorn only the research on GMOs that appears in Science and Nature is not enough. If you buy eggs from a store and they are often rotten do you still trust their meat and dairy? Vanessa has urged us in the past to read the publications of universities rather than the “glossy” science journals. I think that discernment on the part of the reader is more important. When you say that the contributers come from universities, national labs, and other research institutes then I must ask:

    What are the universities, national labs, and other research institutes?
    What research are the other members of their cohort working on?
    Who funded the research the paper is based on? (Universities do not, I think, fund their profs. research.)
    Who funded the two research projects before that? Also, who funded the one they are working on now?
    Make a list of everything they have published for the duration of those projects. Who else’s names appear on the papers? Do you see any common themes?
    Well, what are the co-authors research interests?
    Oh yes, does the author ever ever do consulting work?

    Don’t knock yourself out. Pick one article. Make it the most clear cut up front one for the month. Peer Review only works if the peers are reviewing.