Honesty (Money Plant)

Pursuing Intellectual Honesty, Free of Bias and Conflicts

In a letter to the editor of Obesity Reviews, a group of distinguished public health advocates call for a high standard of intellectual honesty in evaluating food policies. And it’s a good start.

But this letter by Corinna Hawkes and colleagues has one gaping hole in it. It neglects a full consideration of conflicts of interest that can inject bias into policy evaluations.

Financial Conflicts

The authors account for only one very specific conflict of interest. Does a person have a financial connection to a business? They propose to exclude people with such connections from evaluating food policies.

However, financial conflicts come in many other forms. People earn a living by promoting their expert views on food policy and nutrition advice. They publish books, polish their reputations, and build distinguished careers. The value of those publications and careers comes largely from one factor: gaining acceptance for the ideas they advance. Intellectual property is hot. The marketplace of ideas has a strong financial component.

People make big money from nutrition and lifestyle books. Money flows from nonprofits if you are pursuing an agenda they favor. Politics have an effect on government funding for research. Turning a blind eye to such conflicts would be a mistake.

Intellectual Conflicts

Beyond the matter of financial conflicts lies the subject of intellectual conflicts. These include many intangible motivations. People care about their reputations. They want to advance science and public health. Most everyone wants to be seen as a good person.

Of particular importance is the intellectual investment in an idea. With such an investment, cognitive biases can flourish. Research becomes a tool for proving a point instead of discovering the truth. These conflicts can be more important than financial conflicts and more difficult to manage. Ignoring them is not a good option.

Focus on Data, Methods, and Logic

Intellectual honesty is a difficult goal to pursue. Bias is a fact of human nature, essential for making choices every day. It’s especially difficult in matters of food policy. Everyone has an interest in food and wildly different ideas come into conflict.

Hawkes seemingly suggests that conflicts can be removed from policy evaluations. Eliminate people with conflicting interests and the evaluation will be pristine. But the bias of human nature suggests otherwise.

The only solution for eliminating bias is to acknowledge it and focus on data, methods, and logic. Hawkes et al provide a good and commendable introduction to these factors. It’s a good start on a discussion that should involve people with diverse views.

Click here for the letter by Hawkes et al and here for more about nonfinancial conflicts of interest.

Honesty (Money Plant), photograph © CeliceJ / flickr

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October 1, 2017

10 Responses to “Pursuing Intellectual Honesty, Free of Bias and Conflicts”

  1. October 01, 2017 at 9:06 am, Anthony Pearson said:

    Well said! I particularly like
    “Of particular importance is the intellectual investment in an idea. With such an investment, cognitive biases can flourish. Research becomes a tool for proving a point instead of discovering the truth.”

    In cardiology, another source of nonfinancial COI/bias is the need to promote new technology. Such promotion, often not justified by clinical benefit occurs because academic cardiologist need to publish, give talks in nice locations, and be considered experts on things in order to flourish.
    One question: Your reference for nonfinancial COI was to a 2002 paper, is there nothing more recent that is available/good?

    • October 01, 2017 at 10:08 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Anthony! I went to the 2002 reference because it was especially concise and complete. I’ll add some other references for you when I get back to my office.

  2. October 01, 2017 at 9:27 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – thank you for sharing this post–really important stuff (see my disclosure below, too).

    I would also add that a critical element to minimizing bias is to be wary of group polarization and the only way to do that is to make sure that any such group includes the spectrum of viewpoints AND is committed to some higher order goals so that the inevitable conflicts are handled constructively. Jonathan Haidt has a great passage in his “The Righteous Mind” that starts with this winner: “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” and then concludes with the following paragraph:

    “…each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

    My employer, PinneyAssociates, provides consulting services on tobacco harm minimization (including nicotine replacement therapy and vapor products) to Niconovum USA, RJ Reynolds Vapor Company, and RAI Services Company, all subsidiaries of Reynolds American Inc. In the past three years, PinneyAssociates has consulted to NJOY on electronic cigarettes. I also own an interest in intellectual property for a novel nicotine medication.

    • October 01, 2017 at 10:11 am, Ted said:

      Thanks Joe. I fear we’re headed in the direction of intellectual segregation instead of diversity. I agree that we must work against this trend. As you say, it’s critically important!

  3. October 01, 2017 at 11:30 am, Anthony Pearson said:

    That reference is also behind a paywall but I can get form other sources.
    For Joe: Having encountered a cigarette pack in Holland with a scary picture of a gangrenous leg, I’ve been trying to understand why the US has not instituted such graphic warnings on cigarette packs. It looks like Big Tobacco blocked legislation the US Congress passed in 2015. Any thoughts?

  4. October 01, 2017 at 3:20 pm, Susan Burke March said:

    Dear Anthony,
    As I write this from Cuenca, Ecuador, I have seven empty packages of cigarettes sitting on my desk, collected on my morning walks on the Tomebamba. A man with gangrenous legs, identified on the back of the package, lying in the morgue – a doctor holding a normal heart and a huge, diseased heart – photo on the other side of the pack identifies the man by name and a headshot; another pack shows an eye, diseased with the words ¡Atenció! Fumar te causa ceguera – making a personal “you” to the warning. The other side also identifies the victim by Name, Age and even province (Guayas). When I moved here three years ago I thought that graphic images would help slow down cigarette consumption, but not here. The worst was on Friday night where a whole table of young adults vacillated between smoking cigarettes and vaping. It was obvious they were having more fun with the vaping since they were making huge clouds of vapor and enjoying the experience along with their mojitos. Smoking tobacco and vaping appear to go hand and hand with young people, who haven’t been smoking long enough to understand the addiction potential.

  5. October 02, 2017 at 6:05 pm, Joe Gitchell said:

    Anthony-not quite that simple but close. FDA intends to try again, but I expect it will not be a quick process.

  6. October 06, 2017 at 1:07 pm, Stephan Guyenet said:

    I agree that conflicts of interest are not so simple. I think the biggest conflict of interest in science is researcher ambition. Getting grants, tenure, respect of peers. In an ideal world, we would get these purely by doing good science, but the system creates a strong incentive for unscientific self-promotion and this expresses itself via p-hacking, citation bias, data fabrication, and other shenanigans that reduce the efficiency of science. Some of these types of bias are extremely pervasive– although to science’s credit we are taking corrective actions.

    I was on the research side for 12 years, and now I’m more on the lay media side (recently published a book, The Hungry Brain). The lay media also provide strong perverse incentives and I think it’s worse than academia because there’s virtually no accountability for producing garbage. I was the only bulwark against nonsense in my book; I had it reviewed by experts but that was my decision. Book publishers don’t view it as their responsibility to make sure the claims in their books are accurate.

    • October 06, 2017 at 3:05 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Stephan!