The London Times today (09/10/2015) provides yet more evidence of the need to approach academic research with considerable caution. Conclusions should not be taken at face value until one has checked the political, commercial and religious connections of the university concerned.
And this health warning extends to think tanks and consultants, so many of whom present themselves as independent when they appear on the media – a little research can show that they are not nearly as independent as they represent themselves.
The Times reports that Coca Cola has “poured millions of pounds into British scientific research and healthy eating initiatives to counter claims that its drinks help to cause obesity.”
It says that the company “has financial links to more than a dozen British scientists, including government health advisers and others who cast doubt on the commonly accepted link between sugary drinks and the obesity crisis.”
This is only the latest instance where these types of links have been exposed and cast doubt on the credibility of research.
In August – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/ – I highlighted the row over a report suggesting that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco.
The Lancet – http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2900042-2/fulltext – argues that this conclusion depends, at least in part, on a study that itself relies heavily on evidence produced by industry-funded scientists.
And I have tracked a number of instances where links appear to be too close – and many more distinguished people than me are worried about this and the way in which lobbies distort the findings of research to suit their own interests.
One of my recent blogs summarises this – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/
Academics will always insist that they preserve academic integrity and supporters of the sponsors will complain that sceptics should address the message rather than the funding of the messenger.
But we must be more sceptical and keep asking the key questions. 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?
There is a particular obligation on newspapers and broadcasters, who rely for many good stories on academics, think tanks and consultants – many of them spun by energetic PR departments eager to promote their institutions.
Media outlets, particularly those like Radio5Live which is all too easily attracted by lurid research, should be much more rigorous in examining the researchers before they accept the research without question.