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I bet it’s biased: one easy step to squash expert opinions

Accusations of scientific bias are the new catch-all weapon for anti-science commentators and climate deniers. Why are they effective? New research shows they may exploit part of our psychology. Climate…

If only it were a matter of opinion. Matt Brown

Accusations of scientific bias are the new catch-all weapon for anti-science commentators and climate deniers. Why are they effective? New research shows they may exploit part of our psychology.

Climate sceptics have won, Martin Wolf lamented in the Financial Times, despite near-universal scientific consensus against them. The sheer longevity of this “debate” indicates deniers attract disproportionate attention - partly due to one of their main lines of attack: scientific bias.

Attacks on scientists' financial and political motivation are increasing. We hear them not only from committed deniers, but also from commentators in mainstream media. Even politicians and US presidential candidates are unafraid to label climate science a “hoax”.

Now, a new study in press at the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology has shown that the public is particularly sensitive to financial bias when placing trust.

Brent Strickland of Yale University and Hugo Mercier of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France asked non-scientists to evaluate scientific studies. Participants decided whether they believed the results of experiments, given what experimenters expected to find, their financial motivation and whether the methods were sound. The results showed that mentioning financial bias reduced people’s belief in findings, even if the methods were flawless.

This is my truth: tell me yours

High profile debates over HIV, passive smoking and, latterly, climate change, have increasingly questioned the social context of science as well as the facts. They gained momentum during the “science wars” of the 1990s which popularized the idea of scientific findings as socially constructed, inseparable from the people producing them. Now, accusations of scientific bias are going viral.

Take this video, for example:

News presenter Megyn Kelly takes pundit Erick Erickson to task for claiming mothers harm kids by pursuing careers. Around midway, Kelly cites a particularly thorough meta-analysis - a study specifically designed to address bias - which shows his claim is false. Erickson responds, not by attempting to address the science, but by saying “experts can be as politically motivated as anyone else”. Then he gives his opinion, as if Kelly had not spoken.

Erickson asks not whether this is good science but instead whose side the scientists are on. His hope is to create a stalemate where, owing to suspect motives, no science is valid. In this vacuum, his opinion is as good as anyone else’s.

Bias is real …

Why are Erickson and others able to get away with this? Unable to challenge scientific consensus with data, deniers can be confident accusing the establishment of bias. No amount of data will shake this claim, because it is impervious to facts.

And scientific bias is indeed corrosive - we have worried about it for many years. Ben Goldacre, a medical doctor and journalist, for example, has been sounding alarm bells for more than a decade. The bigger the incentives to manipulate results, the harder it is to dissociate findings from motives.

… but it doesn’t undermine all of science

The more high profile these arguments become, the more people get used to the possibility of a giant scientific plot fuelled by career-protecting scientists, and the further their trust in scientific findings, however unanimous, is eroded. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that strictly balanced media over-represent minority views, which are typical of many denialists. A BBC review concluded that climate coverage was skewed towards sceptics.

Thus, when a recent study suggested conspiracy theory was associated with climate scepticism, critical bloggers' predominant response was more conspiracy theory. In the right hands, our sensitivity to financial and political bias becomes a potent anti-science weapon.

If scientists are constantly forced into disclaiming their motives rather than explaining results, then Wolf is right: the deniers have won. The debate is no longer about science, but about bias.

What can be done?

Critics are right to be concerned about bias, but within reason. It cannot be used as a wholesale indictment of science. Numerous studies show that bias can be reduced in various ways: increased sample sizes, carefully controlled designs, meta-analyses, pre-trial declarations and commitment to publishing all results, including negative ones, under open-access frameworks.

Academic platforms routinely declare conflicts of interest. Some, like The Conversation and PLOS journals, place declarations very prominently. Possibly, industry-funded studies should be identified as such in their titles, or appear in separate journals.

Unfortunately, denialist accusations of systematic bias rarely rely on specifics that can be challenged. They invoke a fuzzy, boogieman concept of “bias”, such as Erickson’s blanket statement “experts can be as politically motivated as anyone else”. This is as undeniably true as it is undeniably vague. But if it is repeated unchallenged enough times, we stand a real risk of this argument successfully undermining public confidence in science.

Governments are not currently helping: examples include tying funding from national research institutions to economic gain in the UK and in the US, or allowing unlimited conflicts of interest among FDA advisors. Accusations of bias must be challenged at each turn by scientists and communicators alike. The sooner the vast scientific conspiracy is discredited, the sooner we can get back to the science.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    And all too often, many science denialists slip past mere accusations of "scientific bias" into outright conspiracy theory.

    We see this all the time with particularly fanatical anti-vaccine, anti-biotechnology or anti-nuclear energy types, for example.

    All the scientists and technical experts who disagree with us on [insert pseudoscience belief here], all over the world employed by all the different universities or government agencies or private sector, in all the different countries, are all…

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    1. Barry Woods

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Would I be a ' science denialist' for pointing out the key claim'Lewandwosky et al, Psychological Science (from the supplementary data), that 78,000 'sceptics' amongst 390,000 people that were able to view the survey at SkepticalScience.com, is actually false. Precisely ZERO people saw the survey at www.SkepticalScience.com and that the authors appear to lied about this?

      Whether or not the authors lied about this to the journal and the peer reviewers or are merely incompetent (ie they cannot…

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  2. Jose Garcia

    logged in via Facebook

    There's food for thought here but your mistaken if you think a superior refutation will make deniers change their tune. The blogger from RedState for instance will ignore whatever you say and continue on with his talking points regardless.

    I disagree that the deniers have won, they've given cover and delayed things perhaps but if you look at opinion polls in the US for instance it's pretty clear they've lost the argument in terms of swaying the public. Big Capital however is a different story.

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  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "Thus, when a recent study suggested conspiracy theory was associated with climate scepticism, critical bloggers' predominant response was more conspiracy theory. In the right hands, our sensitivity to financial and political bias becomes a potent anti-science weapon."

    The first study didn't suggest that conspiracy theory was associated with climate scepticism, it found a very strong link of free market ideology with climate scepticism and it also a small subset of climate change sceptics that…

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  4. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    You say:
    “... when a recent study suggested conspiracy theory was associated with climate scepticism, critical bloggers' predominant response was more conspiracy theory.”
    The two links are to papers by Lewandowsky et al:
    “NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax”
    and
    “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation”
    The claim in the title of the first paper is based on just ten respondents (out of 1154) to…

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  5. Barry Woods

    logged in via Twitter

    The author says:

    "Thus, when a recent study suggested conspiracy theory was associated with climate scepticism, critical bloggers' predominant response was more conspiracy theory. In the right hands, our sensitivity to financial and political bias becomes a potent anti-science weapon.

    This paper entitled "Recursive Fury" Lewandowsky, Cook et al (Frontiers) is NOT currently available from the journal that it was published in, and it has 2 Retraction Watch article about it, and was subject to…

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  6. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    Barry Woods in the above comment links to two articles at Retraction Watch. I wasn’t aware of the second one, and have just read Barry’s comment there, which adds some detail I wasn’t aware of.

    Barry and I, plus Simon Turnill of the blog Australianclimatemadness, working independently, were jointly responsible for revealing the lie which reveals the two Lewandowsky papers mentioned above to be worthless. Indeed, the second paper can fairly be described as a conspiracy, since co-authors Lewandowsky…

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  7. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    You say:

    “A BBC review concluded that climate coverage was skewed towards sceptics”.

    The Review referred to is a report by Professor Steve Jones. It contains a long section devoted to climate sceptics. Five sceptics were mentioned by name; Christopher Monckton, Lord Lawson and Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and Andrew Montford and Tony Newbery, who submitted evidence to the review.

    The references to Lawson and Peiser were removed on legal advice. A footnote has…

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  8. George Michaelson

    Person

    I think we have to recognise that inclusion of 'balance' training to actualities reporting/training hasn't adequately addressed some fundamentals.

    If a programme is sent to air discussing the rise of fascism in the 1930s we do NOT have an obligation to find the last un-jailed member of [godwins law avoidance] party and give them equal time to air.

    We do NOT have to give equal time to air to climate denialists, or vaccine denialists, or creationists. Its a myth which other social pressure (which btw, I support) to have equity round the table in political discussions around sexism, underepresentation of minorities, child abuse &c really do require us to examine the equity of time on air.

    I think groups like the glasgow media group would be horrified how we have taken basic metrics on the social agenda on TV and Radio, and distorted it into some mantra that no programme can be shown about climate without giving junk science equal time on-air. Wrong!

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to George Michaelson

      True balance in a discussion occurs where groups of equally educated/qualified/experienced people within a particular field hold differing interpretations of what the evidence shows.

      Pitting a world-class architect against Joe Bloggs who designed his own garage, or a paediatric immunologist against an anti-vax conspiracy theorist is not balance.

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  9. Theo Pertsinidis
    Theo Pertsinidis is a Friend of The Conversation.

    ALP voter

    Competition can create mayhem. Drugs in sport, match fixing... anything to get an edge.

    Smacks of... My mind's made up don't confuse me with the facts.

    What god gave me, what the law can afford me, what criminals and terrorists deny me.

    God is... or god is not. Which way should we bet?

    Read My Thoughts at https://sites.google.com/site/theopert

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  10. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    The reason that authors of published scientific papers are asked to declare potential conflicts of interest is so that readers can evaluate their work in the light of the potential biases - not so the work is automatically invalidated.

    Many real advances in medical therapy have been pioneered with a potential profit motive. What is required of us is to evaluate the work with that potential bias in mind. If the methodology and data show that the work is valid, it is valid - whatever the motivations. The key is awareness, not automatic dismissal.

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  11. Foxgoose

    logged in via Twitter

    Just taking a break from the vital work of denier denunciation for a moment - why has UK taxpayer's money (via the HEFC) been used to transplant Jaspan's marxist academic vanity project here from Oz?

    I know the UK academics' daily fix of collectivist dogma, The Gruan, is dying on its feet - but why do we poor suckers have to pay to bring their methadone replacement from 10,000 miles away?

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  12. Foxgoose

    logged in via Twitter

    Here's a detailed and articulate new analysis of the Lewandowsky "conspiracy ideation" papers which the author appears to have swallowed hook, line & sinker - without any attempt to validate their publication status or validity:-

    http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/13716/

    If he wanted to illustrate the perils of anti-science bias by irrational "denialists" - maybe he shouldn't have called in aid two papers which have become notorious for data manipulation, fraudulent attribution and outright lies.

    There's no delicate way to put this - the authors of these papers told outright public lies about their methodology and data.

    A little bit if Googling around before going to print would have made this clear.

    It's what used to be called "journalism".

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  13. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    As far as climate scepticism is concerned, it is simply not true that “denialist accusations of systematic bias rarely rely on specifics that can be challenged”.

    Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit has written millions of words detailing the systematic bias in palaeoclimatology studies over the past fifteen years. Andrew Montford of the Bishop Hill blog wrote a three hundred page book dissecting Mann’s hockeystick graph which has never been critically challenged. I’ve conducted detailed analysis…

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  14. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    You say:
    “Unable to challenge scientific consensus with data, deniers can be confident accusing the establishment of bias”.

    In fact it is precisely by using data that sceptics have managed to goad supporters of the consensus into imagining a well-financed sceptical conspiracy . It was Professor Phil Jones’s ringing cry to researcher Warwich Hughes: “Why should I give you the data whe you’ll only try to find something wrong with it?” which set many of us o the road to scepticism, plus the decade…

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  15. Paul Matthews

    Mathematics lecturer

    If James Gilbert wants to be taken seriously as an academic commenting on this debate, he first needs to stop using the meaningless and rather childish label of 'climate denier' for people who don't share his views.

    The sceptics are indeed winning the argument, and one of the reasons is the astonishing weakness of the arguments of the other side, who seem to have little more than name-calling, false analogies and straw man arguments.

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  16. Rex Gibbs

    Engineer/Director

    If you conflate Climate skeptic with Holocaust denier to create the term Climate deniers the result just incendiary and not illuminating. Get rid of the term and get some civility back in the argument.

    I am not a sceptic and I agree with a carbon tax. I do not agree that reproducing Green Party propaganda and is delivering a science based argument. The rubbish below and in the article referring to deniers does not advance the debate.

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