Senators Afraid Of 'Chilling Effects' On Those Poor, Poor Lobbyists If Scientists Disclose Which Large Company Funded Research

from the but-think-of-the-lobbyists dept

David Michaels, the head of OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), also wrote the book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. You can guess what it’s about based on the subtitle. The title itself comes from a 1969 memo from the tobacco giant Brown and Williamson discussing a plan to try to obscure the scientific evidence that smoking is dangerous with a flood of competing, sponsored “scientific” research in an effort to sow doubt. The memo announced “doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” Once put in charge of OSHA, he added a basic request (not a requirement) that anyone submitting scientific comments with the agency should also disclose any possible financial conflict of interest. He did not say that such submissions would be ignored, just in the interest of transparency, financial conflicts of interest should be disclosed.

However, as Larry Lessig explains, a bunch of Senators have gone absolutely apeshit over this idea that scientists be asked to disclose financial conflicts, claiming that it could create a “chilling effect.”

Led by Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, these senators objected (PDF) to the agency’s request that financial conflicts of interest be disclosed. The Senators were “very concerned about OSHA’s attempt to have commenters disclose their financial backers.” As Liz Wolgemuth, a staffer working for Alexander’s committee explained, “the chilling effect the financial disclosure could have seems counter to the idea of robust inclusion of a diverse set of ideas and views to inform the rule-making.

As Lessig points out, what exactly is the “chilling” effect here?

The “chilling effect?” Seriously? What’s the chill? That the shrinking violets of the cement industry will be too afraid to hire lobbyists to present their views about the (non-) dangers in inhaling silica?

Again, no one is saying that any such evidence would be ignored. But more information and transparency concerning information presented to the government seems to only create a chilling effect if the financial backers of that information don’t want their names associated with it. Furthermore, such disclosures are common (even more strongly required) in many other places, from academic journals to court filings to political donations. It’s difficult to see the complaint of these Senators as anything more than a cynical attempt to protect lobbyists and the practice of paying for bogus scientific studies.

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Comments on “Senators Afraid Of 'Chilling Effects' On Those Poor, Poor Lobbyists If Scientists Disclose Which Large Company Funded Research”

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55 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

A “study” can tell be twisted and the numbers tortured to ultimately tell whatever you want while still being the truth. For that specific set of data on those specific conditions. Unless the media (and the people) start being naturally skeptical and ask for the methodology adopted it doesn’t even matter if you disclose that the industrialized food sector funded a research that found out that natural food kills. Never mind they studied a group of 90+ yr-old and most died of natural causes.

Anonymous Coward says:

One key point is missing from this story. The reason people in congress are going apeshit over a proposal to reveal any financial conflicts is Climate Change/Global Warming.

The people who oppose this requirement are all strong deniers of Climate Change/Global Warming, and don’t want research funded by climate change deniers to be labeled as such.

The people who support this requirement are all strong believers in Climate Change/Global Warming and the belief that we need to do something about it. They want research funded by climate change deniers to be labeled as such.

The motivation of each side here is money for their big campaign donors. The Climate Change/Global Warming deniers get big money from the groups that do things that allegedly make Climate Change/Global Warming worse. Any new regulations or laws to fight Climate Change/Global Warming will cost them money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There IS NO QUESTION that overall global warming is occurring. That’s documented fact. The ONLY question is the cause. This has happened many times in the past, without Human assistance. Might be this time too, or might not. We won’t know for at least another 50 to 100 years, by which time the “Ckicken Littles” of the world have us in a major meltdown. Short of a total shutdown of all civilization, I don’t see how we can change things enough to matter.
.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:

We are the cause. That’s a documented fact. Civilization doesn’t have to shut down, just switch to green power sources. If we took it more seriously, the Arabs wouldn’t be able to crash our economy by suddenly shoving up the price of oil and we wouldn’t have to poison large swathes of our own country by fracking the shit out of it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Spot on.

There’s also a business aspect that has always baffled me — even if global warming did not exist at all, expanding the diversity of energy sources we use would be clearly beneficial to the economy. Not just a little beneficial, either. It would be HUGE. It would generate tons of jobs, accelerate technology that would be of benefit in many other areas, etc. And, in the end, a diversity of energy sources is just a plain good idea. Being dependent on a single source of anything is being in a position of weakness and uncertainty.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

There’s also a business aspect that has always baffled me — even if global warming did not exist at all, expanding the diversity of energy sources we use would be clearly beneficial to the economy.

To the economy, yes. But not to oil and coal companies, and you know as well as I do who has more lobbying power, the fossil fuel industry or the renewable energy industry.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

As for current science, you would likely need rare earth metals to make the switch and to supply enough you would probably need to rely on China for Neodynium, China and Chile for lithium, S. Africa and Russia or alternatively the moon for platinum. None of these metals are reused in appreciable amounts so it is very unsustainable at the moment.

There are the biofuels where you dont really need much to make it work, except for more space than the surface of the earth with current technology to keep the use sustainable.

In either case, an approach where all of the above are used in the future seems much more feasible since you wouldn’t rely on a single parameter for growth.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is a bit weak to use a subjective measure (knowing that global warming is man-made depends on the level of evidence you demand. Some will never be convinced that smoking can cause cancer.) and a non-sequitor (If we have no idea if it is man-made, how would you ever be able to judge the cause and therefore what is needed to stop the effect?) as the entire argument.

I will give you that acknowledging global warming is a big step up from early denialism, but the logical coherence of these modern arguments are lacking severely.

It would be better to stick to only one of these arguments, of which the depressed “no matter what we do, we can’t change it” is close to where the more conservative scientists are. The other side of the same coin is that “stunting economic growth stunts innovation and ultimately innovation will be far more important for changing things enough to matter” and since economy is a much softer science than climate science it is a far more reasonable argument to make.

Ruben says:

Re: Re: Re:

http://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/1z1hyo/two_of_the_worlds_most_prestigious_science/cfpy15c

Just gonna leave this here.

An excerpt:

Let’s be honest here. These climate change scientists do climate science for a living. Surprise! Articles. Presentations. Workshops. Conferences. Staying late for science. Working on the weekends for science. All of those crappy holidays like Presidents’ Day? The ones you look forward to for that day off of work? Those aren’t holidays. Those are the days when the undergrads stay home and the scientists can work without distractions.

Now take a second before you drop your knowledge bomb on this page and remind me again… What’s your day job? When was the last time you read through an entire scholarly article on climate change? How many climate change journals can you name? How many conferences have you attended? Have you ever had coffee or a beer with a group of colleagues who study climate change? Are you sick of these inane questions yet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“The people who support this requirement are all strong believers in Climate Change/Global Warming […]”

One of the great things about science is that it works whether you (or I, or anyone else) believe in it or not. Even if all of us winked out of existence fives minutes from now, F still equals ma. And in due course, some other species would evolve to their point where their intelligence would enable them to discover that, just as we did.

This has probably already happened. (It would be fatuous for us to presume that in the entire universe, we’re the first species to achieve a grasp of basic physics.)

Thus “belief” doesn’t enter into it. The stark picture on display in the latest round of IPCC reports (which I’ve read, by the way, in their entirety) is laid out in numbers and models, graphs and equations. No “belief” is necessary, only the mathematical and scientific literacy to understand what’s being said.

But your larger point is correct: the denialists have lost the scientific argument. Badly. Now they’re trying to game the process via political means, propaganda, funding, character assassination, etc. And the very last thing they want is an even brighter light shown on those efforts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Basic physics is an entirely human-made construct based on observable effects and with as limitedly influence by unaccounted externalities as possible within the experimenters abilities.

Math and alphabet is entirely humanmade, SI is one of the most basic unit-systems and it is based on seven obscurely defined units (meter is distance traveled by light in 1/299792458 of a second, Kilogram is a chunk on a scale in Paris even though it will be definitionally changed to a relative value of Plancks constant, second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom etc.).

Science is therefore not flawless and it is not universally communicable with other species in the universe. F = m*a is a theoretical constuct of basic observed units and not a universal truth!

Paradigm shifts can happen in science. Therefore the inherent assumptions of the theoretical constructs can be reasonably questioned.

When that is said, it would take a fool to deny science in its entirety! While marred with subjective preconditions, inaccuracy in measurement and effects not accounted for, it is still infinitely better at explaining reality than pure faith and/or ideology.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s a distinction to be made between the language we use to describe patterns and the patterns themselves, though…

The way we describe the speed of light is arbitrary — but the physical constant is real. “Pi” is an arbitrary label, but the ratios inherent to circles are real (even if the concept of “ratio” is, again, an arbitrary way of describing it).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Leigh’s point is a good one — let me, as the commenter who made the comment about science and belief expand on it.

Certainly the language, the units, the mathematics, everything we use to express physical reality is arbitrary. A “meter” would have no meaning elsewhere, and neither would an “AU” or a “kilogram”. But this is irrelevant and unimportant. The fine-structure constant, for example, is independent of units and is, as far as we know, universal. If intelligent life exists on Europa and has gotten to the point where they can measure it, they’ll find the same value that we do.

Thus my point is not about any of these human-centric things but the underlying phenomena. Coulomb’s law, Maxwell’s equations, and all the rest were true before we evolved and will still be true long after we’re gone. We didn’t invent them: we just found them and gave them names and expression.

No, this doesn’t make science infallible and I didn’t say it was. Science is, though, self-correcting, in a way that no other field of human endeavor is. (I cite “international relations” as one that’s pretty much the opposite of self-correcting.) What it does make science is as independent of you and me and Hawking as it can be.

This is frustrating to people who have an agenda that is contradicted by science. If you think the earth is center of the solar system, that creationism more than a fairy tale, or that global cooling is happening, and you want to rally people to your cause, then you’re going to have to evade science as much as possible and focus your efforts elsewhere (e.g., character assassination) because you’ve already lost the scientific argument. I think the global warming denialists know this (either overly or instinctively) and have committed themselves to a Machiavellian strategy of manipulation with a side order of a Nixon-style Big Lie.

And to some extent, it’s working, because people who view Fox News as a credible journalistic outfit or a reliable reporter of scientific truth don’t know enough to catch on. They haven’t figured out they’re being scammed by people who are perfectly willing to put their personal profits ahead of the welfare (and possible existence) of our grandchildren, who, I’m sad to say, may grow up — IF they grow up — in a world where wars over water and food are commonplace, and possibly where a runaway greenhouse effect threatens the existence of civilization.

Far-fetched? Yeah. I thought so too. But I read the IPCC reports. If you haven’t, you should. You’ll need a basic grounding in math and science to understand them — but happily you can now get all of that online for free thanks to all the courses now available.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Mathematics is a universal construct. There may be different symbols, units, bases and written conventions, but we know from the history of many disparate cultures that counting will always come out the same way (there is a grand total of one known human culture that did not develop the same basic counting apparatus, and they simply haven’t developed one). The rest of mathematics is simply a logically deduced short-hand for repetitive counting tasks.

Your argument amounts to, “But they might not write it with F, an equals sign, m, a star and a!”

Under the basic set of assumptions that effectively state we can trust reality to be as it appears, F=ma, by any other name, is still as true. Engaging with reality while assuming it is false is, well, pointless.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Really? REALLY?

You read the IPCC reports, and you’ve concluded that action isn’t necessary? (And not just action in the US: everywhere.)

I don’t believe you. I think you’re bullshitting or lying. I don’t think anyone who’s read those thousands of pages – I mean, actually read them, not just flipped through them, skipping over the parts that got dense — can possibly come to that conclusion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Thank You for Smoking

Few people on this planet know what it is to be truly despised. Can you blame them? I earn a living fronting an organizing that kills one thousand two hundred human beings a day; twelve hundred people. We’re talking two jumbo jet plane loads of men, women, and children. I mean there’s Attila, Genghis, and me, Nick Naylor the face of cigarettes, the colonel sanders of nicotine. This is where I work, the Academy of Tobacco Studies. It was established by seven gentlemen you may recognize from C-Span. These guys realized quick if they were gonna claim cigarettes were not addictive they better have proof. This is the man they rely on, Erhardt Von Grupten Mundt. They found him in Germany. I won’t go into the details. He’s been testing the link between nicotine and lung cancer for thirty years, and hasn’t found any conclusive results. The man’s a genius, he could disprove gravity. Then we got our sharks. We draft them out of Ivy League law schools and give them timeshares and sports cars. It’s just like a John Grisham novel. Well you know without all the espionage. Most importantly we got spin control. That’s where I come in. I get paid to talk. I don’t have an MD or law degree. I have a baccalaureate in kicking ass and taking names. You know that guy who can pick up any girl, I’m him on crack.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Thank You for Smoking

Quote: “He’s been testing the link between nicotine and lung cancer for thirty years, and hasn’t found any conclusive results.”

It’s not the nicotine, it’s those other chemicals in cigarettes that cause the cancer.

Too bad those give nicotine such a bad reputation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Thank You for Smoking

I know snus users who only have hits on the weekend.

I doubt you even know what snus is, it’s a form of tobacco that is used differently, no it isn’t snuff, although snuff is probably the only 100% safe way to enjoy tobacco, just weird out of england and even then.

You get tired of freebase cocaine once you realize no matter how many 100 dollar bills you put on it for the night you’ll never get back to where it brought you these 3-4 times in the honeymoon phase. Then you hate yourself for wasting all that money. Of course cocaine in any form is less addictive.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not really, if the methodology is sound, the process repeatable and testable by others, and the results consistent, then it doesn’t matter who provided the funding, making the sources public just gives people a head’s up that it may be worth paying a little more attention to the details of a study to double check it before accepting it.

Ideally that would happen anyway, with all research receiving the same amount of high scrutiny before being accepted, but unfortunately the talking heads on tv tend to see initials in front of someone’s name and look no further, so having ‘Study paid for by…’ would make spotting the obvious cases of conflict of interest easier for the public, and make passing off bogus numbers/results more difficult.

Anonymous Coward says:

?the chilling effect the financial disclosure could have seems counter to the idea of robust inclusion of a diverse set of ideas and views to inform the rule-making.

This person doesn’t know the meaning of the words ‘chilling effect’. This is not a restriction on free speech.

Requiring someone who wants to make a claim to disclose certain information before they are taken seriously by the public or by lawmakers is not a restriction on free speech. These people are still free to submit any studies they wish, without disclosing the financial backers, it’s just that they won’t be taken seriously. The government is still not preventing them from submitting their studies either to the regulatory agency or to the public.

When the government does something to punish people who say certain things or potentially get them in trouble by the government or when the government does something to prevent someone from saying certain things that’s a restriction on free speech.

The fact that people may criticize me if I say something stupid could have a ‘chilling effect’ on people who want to say stupid things. But that’s not a government restriction on free speech and so it’s not in a government abrogation of free speech.

Likewise, you can present your research to the government or the public without revealing the financial backers. Just don’t be expected to be taken seriously by either. Yes, this may have a ‘chilling effect’ in that it may prevent you from presenting any information. But no one is stopping you from presenting anything. Go ahead, present away. Just don’t be upset when you get ignored.

A good example of what constitutes an abrogation of free speech is when the government grants broadcasting and cableco monopolies. That does have a chilling effect. That’s the government restricting free speech based on the wishes of the monopoly privilege holders of these communication channels. Government established broadcasting monopolies are an abrogation of free speech and they are unconstitutional. They should be abolished.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Here is another video that notes that industry sponsored research often turns out very different results than non-industry sponsored research.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn5slnNB8h0

(start about nine minutes into the video).

Knowing the backers of a study is important because many corporations have no morals. They too often receive no punishment for fabricating data and telling lies and so they are more than willing to be dishonest about how they conduct their studies and the results.

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