You Can’t Swim Without Getting Wet

Existence of conflicts of interest is not the same as evidence of bias

We live in a complex technological world and few of us really understand it. Our lives move at such a pace that we simply point and click our way in a quest for entertainment , knowledge and enlightenment. All too often when we seek out simple answers to complex questions, we risk finding incomplete, potentially misleading and incorrect information.

So where can unbiased information on complex topics such as genetically-modified (GM) crops and food be found? The answer may surprise you — nowhere.

“You can’t swim without getting wet,” is how Roger Pjelke, Jr, author of The Honest Broker, put it during a talk at the National Academy of Sciences. He explained that all communication is political and virtually all scientists are issue advocates. Still some in the room maintained that scientists should stay neutral by avoiding policy debates and speaking only about scientific discoveries and evidence. Neutrality they argue preserves their objectivity and credibility so that they can serve society as an “honest broker” on matters of science. Pjelke was quick to expose the inadequacy of that view and show that scientists as human beings are subject to the same personal beliefs, values and biases as everyone else. Scientists, whether they like it or not, are advocates and play an important role in society explaining science discoveries that can help to resolve societal challenges and improve our lives.

Most scientists view themselves as issue advocates with a responsibility to communicate scientific findings in support of public policy. A 2015 PEW Research survey revealed that 87% of scientists agreed that “Scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.” More than three out of four scientists believe: 1) the public doesn’t effectively comprehend scientific information; and 2) media reports about science are problematic because they don’t differentiate between well-founded and poorly-founded scientific findings.

Getting science right matters; but the mechanisms for communicating science often are ineffective when the public is unable to discern what is factual and what is not. There is a wide gap in our knowledge of science and the gap has been widening for decades.

Carl Sagan wrote in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

“I worry that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.”

Sagan was concerned about people’s fear of what they do not understand and the influence of pseudoscience on the public’s capacity to make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives. Today’s boogieman is Monsanto and GMOs may be the subject of conversation at home or the office, at book club or the gym, or over dinner or drinks. We need clear, understandable, and reliable communication to better inform conversations about the application of science in our society.

In my last article I emphasized that transparency is essential in science outreach and advocacy… that financial support in and of itself is not sufficient to conclude that advocacy is biased… and that attempts to attack and silence public and private sector scientists does not serve the public good.

Few of us would disagree because we expect science advocates to identify potential conflicts of interest and sources of bias. When they don’t we become suspicious. When they do we are more likely to accept that the scientist is trustworthy. These matters were comprehensively discussed by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) North America Working Group on Guiding Principles in their 2009 publication.

Conflicts of interest arise when a public scientist has received funding from the private sector, has philosophical or professional interests in a particular outcome, or has personal relationships with scientists working in the private sector. Similarly, conflicts of interest exist for scientists employed by the private sector because they have an incentive to grow shareholder value. Importantly, the existence of conflicts of interest is not the same as evidence of bias. To discover the truth in any communication, it is critical to understand this difference.

Genuine communication often occurs even when visible conflicts exist. To know whether you are being dealt fact or fiction requires that you identify the various sources of bias and determine whether steps have been taken to mitigate them.

When sources of bias are known then the associated data or findings can be examined for deviation from established facts. Typically in science, experts rely on the weight of evidence, resulting from multiple peer-reviewed and published studies, as a proxy for truth.

Many sources of bias (technical, statistical, cognitive and emotional) can be minimized by robust experimental design, rigorous analyses, and peer review; but the best crucible for truth in science is reproducibility and consistency of findings across dozens of studies. When a diversity of public and private sources produce similar findings then we can assume any remaining bias is minor and accept the weight of evidence as truth.

In the end that is what we all want…evidenced-based accounts that reflect robust efforts to learn the truth and to make progress for the greater public good. Joel Mokyr in writing about the development of the knowledge economy brought into light the connectivity between science, knowledge, innovation and technology advancement. Importantly, he explained that the expansion of technology over the past two centuries was in part dependent on societal acceptance of new ideas. Public sector scientists played a critical role in socializing technological advancement.

We need to accept and welcome the role of scientists as advocates for science, knowledge, innovation and technology advancement. We need clear, understandable, and reliable communication to better inform conversations about the application of science in our society.

I have a passion for building collaborative relationships with public sector scientists engaged in science communication to society. These relationships enable open dialogue and knowledge sharing about scientific discoveries and technology applications with benefits for everyone. Sometimes my efforts are questioned because I work at Monsanto. I hope that as I share examples of my public-private interactions that more people will recognize my genuine motives and appreciate the role of transparency in science outreach and advocacy… Eric

Note: All posts are my own and reflect my personal knowledge, views and experiences.