On Conflicts of Interest

Jul 13 2010 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Conduct of Science, Ethics

There's a quote that will show up on the rotator over there on the left that I found at Ed Brayton's place. It reflects the confusion that the reasonable heterosexual man typically feels over the (US) right-wing idealogue talking points about "making" people gay. You know, by extending them rights, admitting that they exist, refusing to bash them, etc, the social fabric is apparently constructing gay people out of heterosexual cloth. This rejoinder is pitch perfect.

I'm not going to say that all homophobes are closeted homosexuals. I just want to point out that anyone who thinks social pressure is all that keeps straight men from forsaking women to pursue other men has no idea what it's like to be a straight man.

I have a similar response to people like Psi Wavefunction who write:

That is, your results should probably be of a kind that would encourage further funding in your field. Presumably, if you get funding for environmental topics, you'd be better off with results stating your Cute Fluffy Animal is on the brink of extinction rather than 'oh it's doing fine'. In that particular case, who the hell is going to dump more money into Cute Fluffy Animal research if it's not under some sort of threat? Conflict of interests much?

What? Okay, beyond the point of whether scientists might actually believe that Cute Fluffy Animals are on the brink of extinction based on their research and that of their subfield, we have the usual bullshit allegation that scientists just go out and "prove" what their funding agencies want to hear.
It makes me wonder, if a person really believes this, whether they have any idea what it actually means to be a scientist. Now in the case of my usual opponents from the legalize-eet perspective, agreed, they don't know what it means to be a scientist because they are not scientists. No worries, we should probably shoulder the task of explaining to them how our lives work. For someone who appears to fancy themselves a science blogger though? hmm.

Even blogging about research papers is sensitive, especially within your own field. You have to balance opinion, factual accuracy and style without offending the authors. Some bloggers find it perfectly sensible to unleash a tirade against some paper they don't like, but I'd prefer not to sever potential relationships with people I've never met, even if I do think their paper is a piece of crap. Primarily for selfish reasons: at this point, I'm in no position to start collecting enemies in academia. Or anywhere, really.
If I were a truly independent blogger, that wouldn't fucking matter, and I'd probably make a point of devouring every crappy paper I come across for shits and giggles.

So 1) speak for yourself and 2) what is UP with these people who assert what nasty nefarious behavior they would get up to if only they had some cover? Seriously?
This ties into the usual allegations from out-bloggers about pseud-bloggers. This unproven assertion that all this nasty id-based behavior is almost impossible to resist, save the social embarrassment of providing one's own name.
If this is what you really believe then you have no idea what it means to have an intrinsic professional, moral and ethical center.

20 responses so far

  • Coturnix says:

    This is the distinction between having External vs. Internal Locus of Moral Authority. People with the former behave within proper social and ethical constraints due to fear of consequences (excommunication from community, going to jail, getting struck by lightning by God...) and thus cannot fathom that other people may do it because they have internalized the ethics (due to non-authoritarian upbringing) and personally find unethical behavior repulsive.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    But do they really think this way? Really? It isn't just a disingenuous ploy?
    man...

  • Russell says:

    Aside from moral issues, it shows a remarkable naivete about scientific research. It suggests both that scientists are eager to be bean counters, and that that is what the funding agencies want to fund. I suspect most scientists would be eager to make the leap from "cute fluffy doing fine" to "here is how we can do a more effective survey of multiple species in this ecology," to "here are the interesting interactions that we didn't before know about," to "here are the methodological issues we encountered in researching these issues."

  • A lengthy introduction: Psi Wavefunction's post is in a vein of Pepsigeddon posts that have bothered me. There is this childish assumption that any ethical compromise, any conflict of interest, no matter how small, immediately makes you utterly corrupted, so what's the difference.
    Mature people realize that, in the real world, the key to being an ethical person is knowing which compromises can (or must) be made, and which ones should not be made.
    Given that PW has placed him(?)self on the side of the childish, it seems relatively straightforward that fear of external punishment is the only reason for acting responsibly (Bora at #1 said this better).

  • Lorax says:

    Note to self: Do not annoy the mad biologist. He uses nice words and logic to make people cry.

  • Edward says:

    My interpretation of the first excerpt was that conflicts of interest exist, even in the purest of research settings. You've misinterpreted the point. Context.
    For your second excerpt, you appear to want to have it both ways. 1) Speak for yourself suggests that you are not similarly inhibited and have no problem devouring crappy papers yet 2) what is UP with these people who assert what nasty nefarious behavior they would get up to if only they had some cover portrays that very same behavior as undesirable and unethical. So which is it? All's fair or ethics demand a certain decorum?
    Note, I get your hoped for point. And I don't disagree. But in my estimation, on the substance, you're not disagreeing with Psi either, unless you're arguing for intemperate and unrestrained professional schadenfreude.

  • Samantha says:

    It makes me wonder, if a person really believes this, whether they have any idea what it actually means to be a scientist. Now in the case of my usual opponents from the legalize-eet perspective, agreed, they don't know what it means to be a scientist because they are not scientists. No worries, we should probably shoulder the task of explaining to them how our lives work.

    Y'know, we face this a lot in the feminist circles, too. The "since I'm not [fill in your status/role here], I can't possibly understand where you're coming from, so instead of trying to go out and figure it out, You, the [status/role] must explain it to me, because clearly you're the one suffering from my ignorance." I don't think you have the need to explain yourself, and your perspective - if people can't take the time to consider that you're writing from a different place, with a very valid perspective (I'd say scientists have a very valid perspective), screw 'em. Clearly, they aren't interested enough to take initiative and learn something.

    Of course, when that idiot is in policy-making fields, it can become a bit of a problem, but for the average lay-person... Resources are out there. And if you're professing to be of the same [status/role], maybe you should take a good, hard look at what you claim to be, and how your actions reflect that. Close-minded scientists are dangerous.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Samantha, I suggest you go up the archive, click on cannabis and read through a couple of comment threads. There are some hardcores, true, who cannot be reasoned with. But there are going to be folks parroting along a conspiracy line (when it comes to drug abuse science) that really haven't thought about what their facile charges entail. I see it as entirely appropriate to put on some sort of defense, especially given that the motivations and professional goals of scientists are not exactly the grist of the nightly sitcoms/dramas on the teevee...

  • DK says:

    Even blogging about research papers is sensitive, especially within your own field. You have to balance opinion, factual accuracy and style without offending the authors. Some bloggers find it perfectly sensible to unleash a tirade against some paper they don't like, but I'd prefer not to sever potential relationships with people I've never met, even if I do think their paper is a piece of crap. Primarily for selfish reasons: at this point, I'm in no position to start collecting enemies in academia. Or anywhere, really.
    If I were a truly independent blogger, that wouldn't fucking matter, and I'd probably make a point of devouring every crappy paper I come across for shits and giggles.

    Psi Wavefunction is a smart girl and she will have a good career in science. She is all set for it.

  • Just for the record, I do not believe one must 'have morals' to act ethically, nor do I believe that conflict of interest = corruption (whatever that means). DrugMonkey, you seriously misrepresented my point there, going as far as underhandedly associating me with homophobes, for reasons that escape me entirely.
    Just because a conflict of interest inevitably leads to a skew in presented/published data, usually small and insignificant but sometimes very large (you have the be naïve to disagree with that), does not mean scientists are suddenly immoral freaks ready to kill for grant money. I never implied that anywhere. Besides, it is NOT 'bad/evil' to follow your interests. You cannot really follow anyone else's.
    Arguing that principles/morals are necessary for being a pleasant human being is eerily similar to the claims religious fundamentalists make about the impossibility of ethical behaviour in the absense reigning deities...
    You allegations that 'devouring papers for shits and giggles' is somehow 'immoral' are also beyond me. I thought being critical was kind of slightly important to the whole scientific method business? But if that's all it takes to be labeled as 'nasty behaviour', you must live in a very pleasant world where everyone is very nice and friendly to each other and crime is non-existent. I'd like to know where I can apply.
    Anyway, I do not wish to continue this debate. There's plenty far more interesting and productive stuff to talk about and do...(considering I "have no idea what it means to have an intrinsic professional, moral and ethical center anyway". Be careful, I can spontaneously commit criminal activities any second now!)
    -Psi-
    (two X chromosomes, btw)

  • specs says:

    It is a response to your contention that corporations will act immorally because the profit motive is involved, and therefore, work by scientists in such an organization is highly suspect and, indeed, likely tainted because of that bias towards profits. The point is that such biases are not limited to for-profit concerns. Non-profit entities and governmental agencies have a bias towards survival through maintaining and increasing their budget funding. This can also lead to all sorts of questionable behavior and biases against anything which threatens that funding, like hyping accomplishments and making splashy presentations around budget time.
    To make up another example, an agency involved in, say, the War on Drugs could be biased against any research that concludes marijuana use is less a public health danger than alcohol. Such agencies may not look to kindly on any research that draws this conclusion and the particular researcher may find himself looking for another line of work because government grants suddenly are harder to come by. Your contention that science doesn't work this way is responded to by simply saying that human nature does.
    Certainly, training helps scientists recognize and avoid such biases. But the contention that scientists in the public sector, and the agencies that fund them, are somehow completely and uniquely free from any bias towards survival just because they aren't in a for-profit concern is both naive and arrogant.
    That isn't to say any particular scientist hereabouts, or anywhere for that matter, is tainted. But, if you wish to contend sight unseen that the work product of corporate research is corrupted because of a bias towards profits, you open yourself to contention that you are biased towards results that maximize your likelihood of continued funding.
    Your response would probably be that the quality of your research will stand on it's own merit, and rightfully so. It should. Yet that is the very opportunity that was denied to Mehmood Khan here at Scienceblogs. His research
    work product wasn't given the opportunity to stand on it's own merit.

  • becca says:

    It seems to me the philosophical issue where people differ here is not the locus of moral authority, but the epistemological framework in which they put science.
    If you view science as *by nature* a self-correcting enterprise which approaches truth asymptotically, it's perhaps a waste of energy to worry about individual scientists biases over the long haul.
    If you view science as a human enterprise designed and run by humans, with all human frailty and impartiality and bias that implies, it goes without saying that individual scientists biases can play a huge role in the direction the whole enterprise takes. Simply determining *what* questions to ask introduces huge bias, and that bias doesn't magically go away once you have data, but is there throughout the data interpretation and publishing and reading/citing phases of generating knowledge.
    Of course, those are just reasonable opinions that exist on a continuum. Actual people's beliefs may be more nuanced.
    If I'm not mistaken, DM sees science as a human enterprise- in as much as 'what questions you ask' are inevitably influenced by context (be that who you are funded by or other factors)- but that ultimately, scientists adjust to data rather than vice versa- that the data are what they are, and you can't argue with them too much. The truth will (eventually) come out. But the, that's basically *my* view, so perhaps I am just projecting. Care to clarify, DM?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    DM sees science as a human enterprise
    Yes.
    The truth will (eventually) come out. But the, that's basically *my* view, so perhaps I am just projecting
    You are projecting. While I don't disagree, this is not my point here. My point is that if you wish to understand how people are going to behave, you have to understand something about the contingencies that are acting upon them. These are *vastly* different between company R&D scientists and NIH/NSF funded scientists. The role of the entity providing financial support is diminished for the academic scientist.
    The academic career is advanced and furthered by many things that may be entirely irrelevant or even antithetical to the interests of the NIH or one of the ICs. Heck, the (immediate) interest of one of the ICs may be antithetical to that of another.
    Academic scientists are not uninfluenced. I am not trying to make any such claim. It is just that the assertion that the influence of a company goal on the public behavior of a company R&D scientist is exactly the same as the influence of the NIH on an academic scientist is false.
    if you wish to contend sight unseen that the work product of corporate research is corrupted because of a bias towards profits, you open yourself to contention that you are biased towards results that maximize your likelihood of continued funding
    wrong. first, this is not about the "work product" of a company R&D scientist- they may very well act just like any other scientist for internal consumption. Indeed there is very little point to shading or faking data because it is going to lead the company down the garden path and eventually end up in clusterbork. The behavior of those who are let out in public, however, is demonstrably different. How many cases in the past have we experienced in which company scientist were trotted out to put on a good show when internal documents later leaked to reveal they knew all along that the shiny/happy story was a lie? BigTobacco? Ground contamination of various kinds of manufacturing plants? Where do the motivations of the company itself align? Where do the motivations of Universities align? Funding agencies? Who do academic scientists work for? The Uni? themselves? the NIH? ...all of the above and more.
    second point is that the scientific product is not "clean" for NIH funded science. Take the charge against NIDA funded scientists that they only look for harms, not absence of harms. This is scientifically myopic. How so? Well, the vast majority of papers that I read on substance abuse topics include a heck of a not of negative findings. It may be that measure X is changed but measure Y is not. There may be things that appear to be beneficial about drugs of abuse in some papers. The fact that the authors chose to emphasize a negative health consequence angle may be a certain level of bias..but the other data are there. (Which, btw, is why the MDMA fans and cannabis fans have so much fun trying to dismiss some of the papers. )
    Third, we have a diversity of voices in academic subfields, all coming from vastly different theoretical poles, personal policy agendas, etc...and all funded by the same IC. Say, NIDA. Remember the Johns Hopkins psilocybin study? That guy still has a NIDA grant, year 27 from what I can tell and the current interval runs through 2012.
    This is different entirely than the external "science" face of a company.

  • juniorprof says:

    Two points:
    1) For an excellent example of which DM speaks in point 1 check out the avandia GSK hearings going on with FDA right now. They were live-blogging it on NYTimes this morning:
    http://prescriptions.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/14/blogging-the-f-d-a-panel-on-avandia/?hp
    2) Further to point 2, I was supported for many years by NIDA to research the beneficial effects of cannabinoids for pain treatment. This is now widely scientifically accepted and a major argument being used by the legalize/decriminalize crowd in upcoming referendums (e.g. in AZ), and its an argument based almost entirely on NIDA-funded research!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You allegations that 'devouring papers for shits and giggles' is somehow 'immoral' are also beyond me. I thought being critical was kind of slightly important to the whole scientific method business?
    You more or less stated that unfettered ("truly independent" or some such) you would be offering up opinions (I guess that is what you meant by "devouring") on unworthy papers just for "shits and giggles". And that the only reason you do not do so is for external reasons having to do with fear of personal consequences. The not uncommon charge against pseudonymous/anonymous online commentary on papers is that criticisms are in this vein. Done for "shits and giggles" and would not be done if the blogger were "out". I am calling bullshit on this. I express the same degree of critique on the blog that I do in real life and, as it happens, I don't find slagging crappy papers for "shits and giggles" to be all that productive. My actions in this area are shaped by my own ideas of what is professionally and personally appropriate behavior. and yeah, I guess I have to admit that I look down on people who have a wide gulf between their behavior when someone is looking versus when someone is not.
    underhandedly associating me with homophobes
    Nice deflection. I am not calling you a homophobe I am suggesting that if you think most scientists are motivated to behave as they do on the surface of their professions only by threat of external consequences then you have little idea of what it means to be a scientist. The corresponding logic from the quoted comment was nothing more or less that that. the logic.
    two X chromosomes, btw
    and this is relevant to the discussion how?

  • juniorprof says:

    This somehow seems relevant to the current discussion. Mike Ehlers leaving endowed position at Duke to head up Pfizer Global Neuroscience.
    http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2010/100715/full/nj7304-401a.html

  • So anyone who thinks scientists are always professional and polite hasn't been to the same conferences I have ... or heard of the Linguistics Wars. But I have to agree with DrugMonkey that tearing apart someone else's paper isn't productive. It also shows a certain intellectual inflexibility. it's *easy* to tear apart a paper, and it helps you avoid the difficult work of incorporating new data into your own theories. Unless you think the data were fabricated, then they are still data to be explained.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Just to clarify, I'm not suggesting it is never appropriate to rip into a bad paper. It is just not my central focus and I certainly do not find myself having to constantly inhibit myself from "devouring" every bad paper that comes along.

  • becca says:

    "It is just that the assertion that the influence of a company goal on the public behavior of a company R&D scientist is exactly the same as the influence of the NIH on an academic scientist is false."
    The same qualitatively, no. The pulls are in somewhat different directions (I think we all agree on that). The same in magnitude? Possibly.
    "The role of the entity providing financial support is diminished for the academic scientist. "
    Citation, please. And consider including data from industry scientists in Genetech and Bell labs, and academics from Liberty University.
    I don't know. You might be right. Or you might be myopically focusing on your own type of situation. That is, you are more likely to be correct for cases (unusually enriched for in the biosciences) where "employer" (who signs your paychecks) is discrete from "entity providing financial support"- that does diffuse the influence somewhat.
    But I don't really see any pre-tenure professors saying *anything* bad about their university in a public 'on the record' kind of way.
    "I don't find slagging crappy papers for "shits and giggles" to be all that productive. "
    Arguably, true by tautology. However, slagging crappy papers (particularly high profile/glamor mag papers) for educating new grad students to not trust everything in the literature can be the stuff of Win and Awesome in journal clubs. Just sayin.
    "two X chromosomes, btw
    and this is relevant to the discussion how? "

    Mike the Mad Biologist did ask

  • I can't really participate in this debate as I do not segregate things into 'moral' vs. 'immoral', which is probably why I didn't realise you guys would read so deep into my post (srsly, I mentioned bias and interests, I did not say a single thing about morality; I do not even subscribe to absolute morality of any sort! Nor do I want to talk about the subject as I personally find it utterly pointless -- my own opinion, not up for discussion); instead, I find that generally sensible actions which benefit the actor in the long run also coincide with that others call 'moral'. Thus, it's better to just get rid of that artificial value layer altogether and talk about things realistically. Life is not a zero-sum game; if desired, we can cooperate without this whole "my dick is more ethical than your dick" business.
    But that wasn't even my point.
    I did not. make. any. claims about morality. whatsoever. So stop accusing me of labeling scientists or industry or whatever as 'immoral'
    Why does one random musings-level post amid my more serious stuff (seriously, you should probably check it out before calling me a crappy blogger; maybe it won't change your mind, but at least you'd have more data to play with) attract so much attention is beyond me. I'm some person on the internet with an opinion -- whoopty-do!
    Also, why DM couldn't raise his objections on my blog (I don't moderate comments or anything) as opposed to quotemining me here out of context so he and his readers can smugly pat themselves on the back for being ethically superior to some random poster on the internet...again, weird.
    DM, there were much less confrontational ways to air your grievances at my post; why did you proceed to tarnish a fellow science blogger publicly instead? That's the kind of treatment one generally assigns to creationists and woo-peddlers; but even then I personally feel more compelled to be gentler and not accuse people of being morally/intellectually/developmentally inferior to me. If you had taken the time to read ANY of my other posts, you would've realised how harmless my 'devouring papers for shits and giggles' (had no idea anyone would be so heavily offended by that rather innocuous statement...thought only a prude would find anything wrong with it), you'd realise that my 'devouring of papers' is actually not so bad at all.
    Given your confrontational antagonistic borderline-drama attitude displayed on this page, I'm beginning to wonder about your intrinsic moral and ethical centre... were I do believe in such things 😉
    Cheers,
    -Psi-
    PS: I mentioned my gender just because people asked. It is not relevant at all. Calm down.

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