One of many flaws in today’s scientific and political discussion is the emphasis of money. Campaign donations in politics, funding declarations for scientists in academia, concern about from where an NGO receives its donations. It’s as if money rules the roost, that “money makes the world go ‘round.’”
It doesn’t in politics, it doesn’t in career choices, and it doesn’t in academia. It’s widely believed that politicians and scientists are up for sale, that waving a stack of money before their incredulous eyes can have them produce whatever policy, opinion, or scientific result required.
One of the first objections raised when we’re presented with factual claims we don’t like is to dispute the source. It’s not a “reputable” publication, we say, not a “serious” scientist – and (s)he’s anyway in the pocket of some rich, evil, anti-human person or industry we disapprove of.
If our conversation partner or the newspaper we’re reading discusses some – for us – uncomfortable scientific result, there’s a convenient shortcut that lets us off the hook: summon doubts about the financing. If the researchers received money from some corrupt institution, seemingly evil person, or industry we don’t like, we can safely disregard their results.
Phew! We don’t need to engage with whatever the researcher is saying, or investigate the scientific backing of his or her claims: we can reject them without all of that – and take the rest of the afternoon off! The scientist is clearly a dupe, “bought and paid for,” a quack, and must surely have faked his or her entire research agenda.
Examples where we mistakenly do this abound: Big Pharma funding biases which drugs get approved; the Sugar industry funds this or that hatchet job on its competitors; Big Oil funds climate deniers – and on and on. The unspoken (and unexamined) assumption is that money buys research and that the source of funding matters – that science itself is available for sale to the highest bidder.
This is false.
The truthfulness, or “factfulness,” of a proposition does not depend on the biases of the person uttering it – psychologically, ideologically, pecuniary, or otherwise. It depends on the nature of the evidence, taken together with other scientific attempts at replicating and reproducing the result, the method in question, or the various selections going into the research design and data collection.
These, in turn, can be maliciously manipulated with an ideological or financial agenda in mind – but the fact that the researcher received funding is a smoking gun only if you think anything can be proven with statistics. Thankfully, we don’t operate science under an “anything goes” label – there’s method and procedure: objective proof capable of replication rather than manipulated experiments or fake data giving a researcher, like a marionette, whatever results his funders desire.
As soon as the Bought-and-Paid-For objection is raised, two strange things happen. First, we start investigating the funding relationships behind the research in a totally unworthy fashion – remarkably akin to identity politics: what someone says is downplayed in favor of the skin color, gender, class, or demographics of the person saying it, or in this case their funding bodies. That is, we cease following the proud tradition of the Enlightenment and turn back time a few centuries in the application of scientific inquiry: devout believer or heretic destined for the stake?
Second, we disregard the evidence of the case in question! Instead of looking at what matters for the case at hand we look at what doesn’t matter: the identity of the researcher, her previous allegiances or funding backgrounds.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, much smarter people than me have made this exact point. This “bias doctrine” was rejected by none other than Ludwig von Mises in his 1957 Theory and History:
It does not in the least detract from the soundness and correctness of a theory if the psychological forces that prompted its author are disclosed. The motives that guided the thinker are immaterial to appreciating his achievement.
Mises pointed out that “all that counts is whether a doctrine is sound or unsound,” and that “it is immaterial what kinds of motives inspired its author.” Mises being Mises, he didn’t stop there, but argued for an even stronger point. Let’s say that we’ve actually uncovered a person’s financial or ideological biases, say, a climate change denier indisputably paid for by the oil industry. To Mises, that doesn’t matter, since we still need to engage with the actual argument:
Granted that he was biased. But then we must realize that his alleged bias produced theorems which successfully withstood all objections. Reference to a thinker’s bias is no substitute for a refutation of his doctrines by tenable arguments.
It’s not enough to appeal to a researcher’s funding. You refuse a mistaken claim or theory by referring to errors in its production, analysis, gathering, or inability to replicate – not by invoking funding. This is not to say that funding never steered, guided, or nudged the body of scientists in a particular direction. They might have. But possibility is not the same as guilt.
This also isn’t a right-left divide, as left-wing environmental organizations gladly do it too: “renewable” and clean energy initiatives sponsored by producers of wind turbines or natural gas companies. For every right-wing “hack” funded by some disliked rich organization or person (Murdoch, Oil industry, Koch Foundation – you name it), there’s a similarly left-wing push with less-than-pure intentions. For every climate change sceptic funded by the oil industry, there’s an organic food industry pushing for banning GMOs.
I’ll be the first to admit that scientists can deceive themselves and others into believing things that aren’t true. Adding to that equation ideological leanings or unwritten expectations at funding agencies might very well tip the scale in the direction of the myriad of minor research design decisions that must be made in any scientific inquiry. But it’s not enough; you are still obliged to point out the errors of a biased, bought-and-paid-for intellectual opponent.
Causality running the other way
Another overlooked possibility is for the story to be upside down. What if instead of money deciding a scientific result, it’s the scientific result acquiring money? Perhaps it’s the oil execs sending the (dispassionate) climate denier a check – not the former telling the latter what results he wants? Interested industry can support, post facto, researchers whose results or methods broadly support what they want, need, or believe.
You could object that people and scientists simply backward-induct the future lucrative gains they’ll get by forging results now. That adds an entirely new level of forward-looking malevolence among people who, for most of their careers, have been truth-seekers. That’s even less believable than the idea that everyone is routinely faking their results to satisfy some donor.
You can’t reject a claim on that basis alone. But so what? If it were true that a financially biased researcher cut corners or took liberty with methods, data, or analysis, it should be a piece of cake for you to uncover that. Those actions leave a trail – go find the trail instead of yapping about funding! Until then, the point still stands: you have to show the errors rather than complaining about funding.
The Great Barrington Declaration
As a case in point, Nafeez Ahmed of the Byline Times just released a hatchet job on the Great Barrington Declaration – the collection of scientists, medical professionals, and concerned citizens who argue that the costs of lockdowns far outweigh their illusory benefits, recently launched by AIER.
Instead of arguing with the scientists of the declaration, on the merits of the scientific questions themselves, Ahmed investigated AIER’s funding relationships. Surely, anyone saying something that Ahmed disagrees with must be a quack. Sure enough, Ahmed managed to dig up a (tiny) relation to the Charles Koch foundation: a $68,100 donation from 2018 (for reference, the publicly-available financial statements of AIER show a balance sheet of $37 million, with another $167 million held in Split-Interest Agreements).
Because AIER has apparently taken even a small amount of money from someone that the author dislikes, anything ever written on this site can be safely disregarded. What an easy life Ahmed lives! Find a disturbing argument, look up the financials, and if you find something distasteful, reject – without substantive evidence – everything they say.
Perhaps we can extend the logic of this senseless position even further. Everyone is financed by somebody: after all, even researchers and writers need to eat. If money “taints” your opinion – newsflash, it doesn’t – then how come it is only Koch brothers and oil company investments that do? Why not advertising money? Or government grants? What about whoever pays Ahmed’s salary? Or indeed anyone associated with a university: after all, every university with an endowment – until recently, when divestment became a symbolic aim for concerned student campaigns – holds investments in a wide range of securities, including oil, gas, and mineral extracting firms.
Can we now safely disregard everything that any university-affiliated scientist ever said?
No, of course not. This obsession with funding is unworthy of the 21st century, or indeed any century after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution.
As Ahmed’s critique extended to some of my articles at AIER, let me make a personal comment. I don’t know if this alleged Koch donation is true or not (And why should I have access to that information? I’m a writer for the site, not an accountant or fundraiser). But I do know something about my own articles and how they were produced. Since Ahmed linked to them and called them “studiously dedicated to downplaying the severity of climate risks and obfuscating the science around human exploitation of oil, gas and coal,” here is a smoking-gun problem for him: I never received a call from Mr. Koch – not so much as an email or a DM! – instructing me to “obfuscate science.” Nobody at AIER ever told me to puff my pieces into a more climate-hostile attitude, or downplay risks of global warming. How exactly did Koch money taint my arguments on climate change?
When people fake data, misconstrue study designs, misinterpret meaning, or puff up results to say what they don’t really say, statistics – and by extension, the scientific method – is what allows us to find the flaws and debunk the erroneous claim. Concerns about funding don’t. I spend much of my time investigating and learning about how science can go wrong: ideological convictions of funders play a remarkably small role.
Science can, and does, go wrong. It’s our job to spot its errors, point them out and fix them. Not yap on irrelevantly about where the money came from.