When we listen to academics, think tanks or consultants, we usually assume that they bring a degree of intellectual rigour and to their research.
This may be the case but it is always worth checking their websites to see if they are just as independent as their name makes them appear or if they have another agenda.
We hear all the time from bodies like the Local Government Association, the NHS Support Federation, Media Watch, Immigration Watch and the Internet Watch Foundation. Have a guess which are genuinely independent observers and then have a look at their websites.
Let’s take one example. At the end of January Ofgem reported that the energy giants’ profits had risen to £114 per household. Of course, none of the companies responded – they put up Lawrence Slade from their trade and lobbying group Energy UK.
He relied on research from American consultants called NERA, which he said shows that Ofgem’s SMI reports, time and again, have proven to be unreliable.”
EnergyUK described it as “new, independent research” while NERA said it had been commissioned by EnergyUK “to review the methodology for Ofgem’s Supply Market Indicator (SMI).” However it insisted that the report “provides an independent assessment of Ofgem’s analysis.”
It is debatable whether a report can be totally independent from the company that commissioned it. But there is no doubt that EnergyUK would have chosen which company carried out the research.
A visit to NERA’s website is instructive www.nera.com
After looking at the site, you may conclude that NERA is a bastion of neutral analysis. I could not possibly comment.
Then, just after Slade’s appearance on the radio, we hear from David Cox, managing director of London Energy Consulting, who is presented on the BBC as an independent observer and so given a soft interview.
Look at its website (www.londonenergyconsulting.com) and you will see that Cox has more than 30 years experience working in the industry and is also part time Managing Director of the Gas Forum, which represents the mid and downstream gas industry in the UK.
You may conclude this is perfectly innocent – which of us doesn’t have difficult interests to balance. But it is always worth checking someone’s interests, particularly where they are defending those in real power.
Take the Middle East – well, no-one will instinctively trust me totally on that subject once they have checked everything I have written.
But I am not the only ones you should be sceptical about. The next time you hear someone from the Middle East Policy Council or the Washington Institute, check up on their advisory boards and sponsors.
They make interesting reading to say the least.
And when you hear Michael Weiss, who set up The Interpreter, which is funded by the Herzen Foundation and the Institute of Modern Russia, talking about Russia, check his website to decide if he has an agenda.
You may be convinced by the arguments that experts present but you cannot trust a commentator just because the BBC or some other media organisation is treating them as is they are independent.
So check not just what all these organisations say about themselves but also who sits on their advisory boards – that often gives clues.
And remember the words of the journalist Karel von Wolferen, who advised that “foreign-funded think tanks do not exist for thinking, but for peddling policies in line with the beliefs of the funders that they, not wanting to learn from recent experience, dogmatically assume are good for anyone at any time.” That comment probably applies to all think tanks!!
And remember too that commercial and political interests sponsor professorships, help finance universities or have interesting links.
So, always ask if academics are choosing to research into legitimate subjects, those that give them good publicity or those that suit their sponsors.
And remember too that academics can have their own private companies. It may be a coincidence that from time to time academics produce research that works to the advantage of commercial projects they are involved in – and of course they gain great publicity when the university’s press office presents that research to the media.
It only takes a few minutes to run an academic’s name – say Dr Gavin Sandercock of Essex University or Zoe Harcombe – through a google search and see what their commercial interests are, what their research reveals, and then decide if you trust them.
The key is to always ask questions.
And here let me give you an example of little tangled web. Earlier this year Animal Aid videod what it called the cruel slaughter of sheep in the abattoir of Bowood Lamb in Yorkshire.
Animal Aid was defined in the stories as an animal rights campaign and it says it fights against all forms of animal abuse. In reality t is a vegan organisation that believes all animal slaughter is cruel – there is nothing wrong with that, but when I looked I struggled to find that information on its home page.
Equally Bowood Lamb were represented by “their solicitor” Jamie Foster, who has a colourful background, but that is another matter. He is not Bowood’s country solicitor but actually a specialist in defending farmers, hunting act cases and abattoirs.
Be sceptical too about polls funded by a vested interest – and that applies even if it is “carried out independently.” Pollsters all have their own methodologies (what they do to adjust their raw data) so two might produce radically different conclusions from the same information.
This means it is a matter of choosing the most sympathetic methodology – and ensuring that the correct question is asked.
Take a recent survey (29/01/2015) of the rate at which people lose patience when, for example, waiting at a bar or sitting in traffic – the survey found that patience levels were dropping.
This was commissioned by interparcel.com which said that “the average person expects good service quicker than ever. Frustration kicks in when there is a lack of communication.” This was given good media coverage – interestingly it fits corporate strategy of interparcel.
So the rule must be simple: always double check everyone’s agenda, even when they are treated as independent witnesses in the media.