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A new wrinkle in misleading research?

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What’s hot? What’s not?/Niklas Bildhauer, Wikimedia

Okay, not new, but we hadn’t heard this one before, as recounted by French philosopher of science Mathias Girel in an interview:

Regarding hidden intentions, we can cite the example of cigarette manufacturers, who in the 1950s and ensuing decades successfully cast doubts on the dangers of tobacco by financing studies that can in no way be called into question on scientific grounds.

M. G.: Precisely. They simply financed research on causes other than cigarette smoke in an effort to explain lung cancer: viruses, the impact of dust, genetic determinants, etc. In Golden Holocaust, published in 2012, the historian of science Robert Proctor showed that it is very difficult to challenge these studies or to dismiss them using the traditional arguments on the dividing line between science and non-science, as they meet all of the traditional criteria: they come from scientists, they are based on scientific formalism and method, they are published in peer-reviewed journals, and meet the Popperian argument on refutability, etc. Only the intention underlying this research can convey its “pathological” character, as it was financed with the sole aim of dismissing, suppressing, or minimising the most important cause of lung cancer, which is tobacco smoking. This kind of elucidation takes time, and shows that the scientific criteria currently available to distinguish between pathological and “normal” science are less effective than before. Charline Zeitoun, “Is Science in Crisis?” at CNRS

So the genius of the tobacco companies’ strategy was that the research they funded was good research, just not about the effects of tobacco.

Their strategy might not work today because it might not be financially feasible to tie up most of the researchers in a field on other projects, whether or not the researchers sussed out the strategy (they probably would). As the prof says, this illustrates the need for sophisticated understanding of how research can be manipulated. And in the end, one can’t turn good, usesful research down just because one does not like the motives, real or imagined.

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See also: Gaming the system: How replication can be gamed in neuroimaging

Researchers: Double Down On Theory Like “Natural Selection” To Solve Replication Crisis

and

Amazing! Science Journal Op-Ed Gets Real About Why So Many People Don’t “Trust Science”

2 Replies to “A new wrinkle in misleading research?

  1. 1
    vmahuna says:

    The last I heard, being a “coal miner” is MUCH more likely to lead to your death than being a policeman. Which is why we keep bemoaning the deaths of policemen…
    And although I’m sure the textile industry has made great strides in cleaning up the air in spinning mills and such, but Brown Lung disease was killing about the same number as Black Lung.
    In cigarettes (and other tobacco products that are burnt), the diseases are caused by inhaling the tar and ash not the nicotine. So since manufacturers have now gotten the tar and ash way down, The Media have launched campaigns claiming that “they deliver more NICOTINE than ever”. That is, they IMPLY that nicotine is dangerous without attempting to prove that.
    See also Max Shulman’s 1956 “Rally Round the Flag”, a comedy about an advertising guy stuck with creating a TV special to defend cigarettes.

  2. 2
    Ed George says:

    V, good points. My only response is that if any modern company introduced a new product for public consumption that is as addictive as nicotine, there would be charges laid. The vape manufacturers are in a grey area. As a means of getting smokers away from the carcinogenic properties of tobacco, it is a good thing. But I have a problem with the fact that they are marketing them to non smokers.

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