Judgement Day

In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data

Don’t trust research funded by industry. Two publications advocated for that idea in JAMA Internal Medicine last week. Advancing a more objective view, Andrew Brown wrote yesterday in Slate that bias comes into nutrition research from many sources:

Nutrition is uniquely suited to more personal attachments. After all, everyone eats. And then, as with any other field, there are professional pressures and expectations. Someone who studies a particular food likely has preconceptions about what he or she expects the food to do to health. A professor attempting to get tenure is under pressure to come up with fundable and noteworthy results. Researchers who built their careers on demonizing or lauding particular foods have a vested interest in substantiating their views.

Brown argues that much of the current dialogue about scientific integrity is based on genetic and ad hominem fallacies. A genetic fallacy is an argument to discard an idea because of its source. “If industry funded it, we can’t trust it.”

An ad hominem fallacy attacks the person who is advancing an idea. “We cannot trust her research because of the views she has expressed.”

In both cases, Brown argues, the result is less scientific rigor:

Down-weighting or ignoring data from people or sources we dislike without empirical reasons to mistrust the data is to willingly position ourselves in a world with less information in the thin hope that the remaining information will somehow be better—but with no such guarantees.

In science, only three things matter: the data, the methods used to acquire the data, and the logic used to connect the data to the conclusions.

Trust is the wrong foundation for scientific integrity. Every bit of scientific research needs a critical review based on the merits of the research itself. Introducing feelings about the researchers or the funders of the research introduces bias.

Edwards Deming, the author of our headline, was correct. Sound data is the key to scientific integrity, not trust.

Click here for the commentary by Brown. Click here and here for the papers in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Judgement Day, fresco by Viktor Vasnetsov / WikiArt

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September 22, 2016

3 Responses to “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data”

  1. September 22, 2016 at 8:44 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup! “Trust is the wrong foundation for scientific integrity. Every bit of scientific research needs a critical review “

  2. September 23, 2016 at 9:24 am, P Bishop said:

    Whereas the philosophy expressed is certainly sound, and DATA indeed are KING in science, TRUST is also NOT optional. Every one of us doing science is placing trust in those who have laid the scientific foundations, we trust colleagues and students who assist us, and to some extent we trust those refereeing all papers and grants. Large research grant proposals require LOTS of trust in every direction.

    There are AMPLE reasons NOT to be too trusting… but some trust is requisite!! It is simply UNAVOIDABLE that we trust, which may be why we DO need to be careful who, what and how much we trust!!

    • September 23, 2016 at 9:39 am, Ted said:

      In the realm of science, trust should have an objective foundation in proven methods, sound reasoning, critical reviews, and data transparency. Simply trusting or mistrusting research findings because of who produced the findings or how they were funded leads to a hopeless swamp of bias.