The Cowshed

Agenda-Driven Science to Justify Fixed Policy Preferences

On the subject of nutrition and health, we commonly encounter strong statements presented as scientific truths that must be honored. Headlines scream that “ultra-processed food is killing us,” using studies of correlation to justify sounding an alarm. “Cows are just an environmental disaster,” says Hannah Ritchie in the New York Times. But with equally great passion, Peer Ederer warns us to beware practitioners of agenda-driven science in pursuit of scientific truth:

“Such agenda-driven scientists pursue an a priori mission, whose achievement justifies any means, even if it includes to willfully manipulate and interpretate data, or to violate good practices of integrity in the sciences.

“So as to guard both as the individual scientist and as the discipline against the intrusion of such agenda-driven science, this article suggests adopting the Popperian stance to generally refrain from the concept of seeking or establishing a ‘scientific truth,’ and instead to restrict oneself to presenting the ‘scientific evidence,’ both in terms of what the evidence shows, and what it does not.”

Case Studies in the Pursuit of Truth

Ederer contends that agendas can drive flawed scientific publications with an aim to justify predetermined truths. He cites three influential studies and their flaws to support his contention:

1. The IARC Working Group report on the Carcinogenicity of Red Meat
2. The Global Burden of Disease 2019 publication
3. Sustainable livestock at United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021

Obviously, Ederer is concerned about misrepresentation of science to promote strongly-held feelings about animal agriculture.

Strong Feelings and Uncertain Evidence

There are few subjects that evoke stronger feelings than meat production and its connection to climate change. People are entitled to their feelings. Hearing the expression of those feelings is important.

But it is also important to step back and consider the strengths and weaknesses of available evidence that might contribute to those feelings. In doing so, we should remember this caution from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine:

“Science aims for refined degrees of confidence, rather than complete certainty. Uncertainty is inherent in all scientific knowledge, and many types of uncertainty can affect the reliability of a scientific result. It is important that researchers understand and communicate potential sources of uncertainty in any system under study.”

So agenda-driven science may not actually be science. Rather, it is often merely an expression of an agenda.

Click here for Ederer’s commentary.

The Cowshed, painting by Marc Chagall / WikiArt

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May 2, 2024

2 Responses to “Agenda-Driven Science to Justify Fixed Policy Preferences”

  1. May 02, 2024 at 9:34 am, David Brown said:

    Science aims for refined degrees of confidence, rather than complete certainty? While that may be true in epidemiology but not biochemistry where experimental precision can give rise to certainty.
    Unfortunately, this is what’s happening these days. “Peer Review – A rigorous process through which mostly dubious ideas gain broad scientific consensus before becoming unquestionable dogma.”
    For example: “It is a well-documented observation that dietary saturated fats raise plasma LDL-cholesterol levels. However, to reduce cardiovascular risk, it is not enough to simply reduce intake of saturated fats, as this Advisory convincingly puts forward with their exhaustive literature review. The greatest cardiovascular benefits are elicited when dietary saturated fats are replaced with polyunsaturated fats.”

    • May 02, 2024 at 9:38 am, Ted said:

      Given the concerns you have expressed about false certainty on the subject of saturated facts, this perspective from you surprised me, David.