June 21, 2014

Alleging a Conflict of Interest Does Not Discredit Research

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 12:02 am

A few days ago I wrote that the new populism was an anti-expert phenomenon that discounted, often even disparaged, the skills of negotiation and compromise in politics.  As it turns out, the new populism is also deeply anti-scientific, given that it appears to have just as little comprehension of the logic involved in the scientific research enterprise.  I’m speaking in particular of the practice of attempting to discredit a study by claiming that the researchers had a financial conflict of interest.  This assertion is thrown around whenever a piece of research comes out with a conclusion that a given side doesn’t like.  And the grassroots on both left and right do it.

On the right, this is prominently shown in the climate change denial crowd.  Even on FOX News, hardly a grassroots-based source, climatology studies that show warming and indicate a very high probability of its being due to human activity are dismissed on the grounds that “those scientists get grant money that’s contingent on them coming to that conclusion.”  The tea party foot soldiers (or keyboard warriors, more typically) repeat this claim ad nauseam.  On the left, this behavior is most commonly found among the anti-big-agriculture crowd.  A study comes out that finds that a dietary bogeyman of the left really isn’t bad?  Well, the study must have been influenced by Big Ag, so therefore it can be dismissed among the faithful without a second thought.

The term “conflict of interest” is thrown at scientists by these people, and they fail to realize (or more probably, simply don’t believe) that even if a researcher was receiving funding from a source that has an interest in the research conclusions, that does not discredit the research.  In fact, you can’t find any scientist anywhere who doesn’t have a “conflict of interest” of some variety.  In most sciences, positive findings (in science, this means finding a real effect instead of failing to do so) are a lot more likely to be published than null findings.  Scientists therefore have a personal interest in seeing positive results.  Scientists can also have a personal conflict of interest that is ideological rather than financial.  There is no such thing as a truly detached, objective human being, and the political populist squawking about “conflicts of interest” in science amounts to little more than the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

What matters for assessing the credibility of research are the methodology of the research and whether the study can be replicated.  Does it “look bad” for, say, the corn industry to contribute funding to research indicating that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t harmful in moderation?  Well, yeah, it does.  But “how it looks” means NOTHING in the scientific method.  If there is a problem in the way that the study was done, then call that out.  If there isn’t an obvious problem but the study cannot be replicated by other researchers, then it might be time to question whether the claimed methodology was the actual one.  But in the absence of these other issues with the research, going after the people who paid for the study doesn’t prove a thing about its validity.

As an example, a couple of years ago, a right-wing think tank funded a sociologist to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct a survey into the personal outcomes of adult children who had been raised by various types of families.  The study was, for a little while, used in court cases to support denying marriage to gay couples.  The claim made was that people who grew up in these households had poor life outcomes in the surveyed areas.  Naturally, there was pushback against this study, due to the political nature of its topic.  The type of pushback that ultimately went nowhere (and rightly so) was that which was based on attacking the funding source and asserting “conflict of interest.”  The pushback that was successful was to go after the methodology of the study.  As it turned out, the people that the researcher and his allies were claiming had been “raised by gay couples” were almost entirely from broken homes in which one parent was gay but was originally in a doomed marriage with an opposite-sex person.  The real takeaway from the study was that gay people shouldn’t marry straight people and definitely shouldn’t have kids with them, because—no particular surprise—kids from broken homes tended to have more issues than kids who grew up in happy families.  Making attacks on the source of the funding didn’t discredit the conclusions that were being bandied about; going after the methodology and finding that it did not support the claimed conclusions was what did the trick.  (And, as a footnote, some ideologues among the critics did not at all like that the more scientifically minded critics urged them to knock it off with the irrelevant attacks on the funder and focus on methodological problems.  This is another anecdote in support of my conviction that there is a strongly anti-scientific strain among modern-day grassroots political activists.)

The final problem with ideologues claiming “conflict of interest = discredited study” is this:  It is an implicit allegation that the scientists involved in the work committed research fraud to please their funders.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to make, the gravity of which these ideologues apparently have not a clue.  Deliberate research fraud is a permanent career-ender in science.  The world of scientific peer review is based on an honor system that what the researchers claimed they did is what they actually did.  (Replication of studies bolsters the system, but again, there is a preference for positive original research, so a lot of replication studies don’t get published.  There is awareness of this problem in the scientific community and steps are being taken to address it.)  If a person wants to claim that a scientist committed research fraud, this claim is so serious that the claimant had better have proof of it.  And yet, political activists with a definite conflict of interest (the desire to see certain results so that they are not disturbed in their ideological convictions) toss it around implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) without the slightest regard for what they are saying.

The net result of this ignorant, slanderous, conspiracy-theorist, and scientifically irrelevant line of attack has been an undermining of the trust in certain areas of science, depending on where a person falls on the political spectrum.  In other words, they’ve touched science and managed to poison it too in the public mind.  So yes, between the bad logic and a destructive mode of skepticism that completely undermines the foundation of the scientific method, I think I am entirely justified in saying that there is an anti-scientific current running through the new populism.

June 19, 2014

Good and Bad Populism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 3:59 pm

Those who know me know that, over the past couple of years, I’ve become profoundly anti-populist.  This has been a result of the antics of the tea party and new progressives—the obstruction, “my way or the highway” purist mentality, a utopian mindset, the use of America’s capital city as a slur, and the putting up of “the people” (or “the grassroots”—because they only approve of their sort of people, you see) on a pedestal, as if the problems in Washington aren’t a direct result of the increase in polarizing ideologues sent by, yes, “the people.”

Recently there have even been calls for these two factions to ally when possible, because they’re not that different.  I would agree that they’re not that different.  Both want to establish some sort of utopian society (“if everyone just followed our rules, we’d have a perfect world”) and have few reservations about how far to go in doing so.  There seems to be general agreement that rights don’t exist unless their exercise serves to advance “the good of society” (according to their utopian definition).  The person must justify a right to the state instead of the state having the burden of proof for restricting that right.  As an example, grassroots progressives seem to have no problem making the argument “because we have quasi-universal health insurance now, and everyone pays for your coverage, I have the right to legislate your lifestyle.”  (Risk pooling is how insurance works.)  Social conservative tea partiers (I specify this because there are still a few tea party-identified libertarians, and while I disagree with some of their views, they are not trying to set up an authoritarian utopia) want to restrict which adults are allowed to marry or become parents (and some want to take away the right to not have children—yes, there are anti-contraception social conservatives, Rick Santorum most prominent) because of their opinion of what household type is “best for society.”  These are far from the only examples of a behavior-controlling agenda, and the use of “we’re all connected, so your private behavior isn’t really private” as a reason to do it is the slippery slope from Hell.  Maybe it isn’t great for obesity and single parenthood to be widespread, but people have the right to be those things, so that’s no reason to apply the stick instead of the carrot.  And it certainly isn’t a reason to apply that stick to, respectively, naturally thin people and committed gay couples because of some belief (unsupported by evidence) that a BMI of 19 or a married straight couple are the only things that directly “benefit society.”  Yes, the new progressives and the social conservative wing of the tea party do have a great deal in common.

And it is precisely because of what the similarities are that I really hope these two populist utopian movements don’t figure out how to work together.  If this is being set up as “the new populism” versus “the establishment,” well, I know what side of the fence I want to be on:  the side that recognizes that governing and politics, like any other profession, require skills and experience.  Becoming a scientist has given me a new perspective on the value of skills and experience.  For politics, I’m talking about skills like the ability to shake the hand and strike a deal with someone in the opposing party rather than viewing it as treason to an ideology.  The piecemeal approach of tackling issues individually rather than as part of some grand plan to reengineer society into a utopia.  Maybe—thoughtcrime incoming—the willingness to listen to what policy experts, a.k.a. lobbyists, have to say about the policies that they are trying to influence, rather than a group of armchair activists who only “know” the canned ideological talking points promoted by the Facebook page and blogs of the advocacy group that’s using their numbers as muscle.

No, I don’t really like the new populism very much.  It puts amateurism on a pedestal in the political sphere, implying that “outsiders” with no knowledge of how to get things done are somehow “purer” and morally better, when in fact politics is a skilled profession like many others and the skill of an individual is quite distinct from that person’s character.

However, I want to be fair.  Not all populist movements are a bad thing.  In fact, a case can be made that many advances on certain issues throughout American (and any other country with Western-style republican democracy) history ultimately had roots in a populist movement.  The push for universal suffrage was a big one.  The call to eradicate slavery.  The movement to have national parks set aside.  The call for environmental regulations and worker safety regulations.  They haven’t all been on the “left” either; in eastern European countries, the fall of communism was helped along by a capitalistic, libertarian-aligned protest populist movement.

These “good” populist movements, you may notice, were mostly focused on a single issue, and they worked within a democratic-republican system of government.  They achieved their goals through advocacy, voting, and successfully defending their accomplishments as Constitutional in the courts.  They didn’t try to remake the whole system and certainly did not have an “anything goes” mentality for pushing their agenda through.  The anti-communist populist movement did work outside the system, but that was because the system was itself authoritarian.

History is full of examples of populist movements that sought to overthrow or reengineer a whole country, and it rarely judged them well, even if the system that they sought to replace was also repressive.  The French Revolutionaries are a fine example of that; the autocratic French aristocracy was a repressive system, but once the revolutionaries got power, the system they set up was just as bad.  The Bolsheviks are another example of this.  It should be noted that these revolutionary movements that started off sympathetic (because the existing system was repressive and autocratic) and went the way of Animal Farm are often left-wing in nature.  On the right, of course the most prominent example is the Nazi movement.  (I am categorizing it as right-wing because, regardless of how socialistic some of their economic ideas were, you only benefited from it if you were their approved type of human; it was all in service of an extremely nationalistic, racist, sexist, right-wing social agenda.)  They took power by democratic means rather than a coup, but their goals were just as utopian as their analogues on the populist left.  Democratic ascents to power aren’t always the case with right-wing populism, and we need not look any farther than Central and South America for that.

In fact, the revolutionary populist movement that history seems to have judged the most kindly is the American one of the 1770s.  And that is because, when they achieved power, they did not set up a repressive system, nor did they seek to completely remake society.  American law really isn’t all that different from British Common Law.  The beef of the revolutionaries was that Britain wasn’t living up to its own ideals, not that those ideals themselves needed to go (except for the notion of monarchy and a parliamentary system of elections).

This is why single-issue populism in democratic countries generally ends just fine.  It recognizes the value of these ideals and wants to work within that framework.  It is probably why populist movements to overthrow a truly repressive system generally become just as bad as what they threw out; a totalitarian set of ideas is their point of reference.  And it is why populist movements to establish a utopia over a country that is already democratic-republican tend to end worst of all.

I wish that the current populist movements in the U.S. were still the first type, but I do not think they are any longer.  Ideology is rapidly becoming a package deal:  If you believe that there should be some safety and environmental regulations on business practice, you’re probably going to buy the whole progressive “package” with it.  If you believe that welfare is being abused and something needs to be done about it, you’re probably buying the whole social conservative “package.”  And both sides will have long, wordy explanations for why you “logically” must accept the whole package if you accept one piece of it, which they then use to justify the ostracism of moderates, crossovers, and anyone who deals with the other party on respectful terms.  This is not about single-issue advocacy; this is about grand plans for remaking society.  It disturbs and frightens me, and I am not going to support it.

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