How academic research gets distorted

David Aaronovitch is right to warn us in his Times column today about the “use of evidence by the committed to sway the uncommitted.”

He cites as an example the way selective use of academic research into sex workers in New Zealand is being used by both those supporting and opposing the decriminalisation of prostitution.

This is far from the only example he could have cited. More and more stories in the media are based on research by consultants and academic institutions (sometimes as many as five a day in a newspaper).

This is probably inevitable as these groups are obsessed with increasing their profile and have public relations departments ready to spin the research in the best way to win column inches or radio and TV minutes.

In his analysis of the argument about the safety of sex workers, Aaronovitch went back to the actual findings produced by the University of Canterbury to determine which of the two protagonists had the stronger case.

He is correct when he says we should all make a greater effort to look at the original evidence.

But, I think we need also to examine the interests and motives of the universities, think tanks and consultants who produce the research that generate headlines.

For example, do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?

So Aaronovitch should also have been asking questions about the track record of the University of Canterbury and those who carried out the research – though I would hasten to add that, having done so, I saw nothing to suggest that this piece of work was anything other than genuine research.

I am not suggesting that they have behaved improperly, only that we should make ourselves aware of all the interests of academics before we assess their research.

I have traced some of the links between academics and their other activities

We should adopt the same scepticism when we examine the evidence from “independent experts,” consultants and think tanks, cited by industries, particularly the energy sector, when they are trying to justify themselves.



I show that the independent experts are not quite as independent as they are presented. Look at some of the connections I illustrate and see if it raises doubts in your mind.

And have you ever read opinion research commissioned by an organisation that fails to deliver the results that suit the interests of the body that paid for it.

Scepticism is also needed when looking the think tanks that analyse international politics. When a report on for example the Middle East, from a think tank which boasts of its independence, it is always useful to look at the past employment of their senior executives and particularly to see who is on their advisory boards.

Think tanks on both sides of the Middle East debate like to disguise the identities of their backers but more often than not one can guess the conclusions of their analysis by looking at the views of these people

When we read a piece of apparently research, analysis or advocacy, we should ask questions and we should certainly not take their conclusions at face value.

So what should we do? Always be sceptical about any evidence cited in support of any case. The alarm bells should really ring when we hear the word “independent.” And be doubly suspicious of anyone who says “research proves” or “research shows” without citing any example.

Ultimately, as Aaronvotich says, we need to “to keep ourselves ferociously well informed and investigate all claims” though I suspect he is correct when he says most of us would rather go to the pictures.


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