Bad science gets busted

High-profile cases show the importance of questioning academic research -- especially when it has a corporate tie

Published September 24, 2012 4:57PM (EDT)

As any P.R. hack worth his weight in press releases knows, the most persuasive content is that which doesn't look like propaganda at all.

If you want to influence a mass audience, for instance, you can try to do what the Pentagon does and subtly bake slanted information into entertainment products such as movies and television shows.  If, on the other hand, you are looking to influence a slightly higher-brow audience, you can embed disinformation in newspapers' news and opinion pages. And if you are looking to brainwash politicians, think tanks, columnists and the rest of the political elite in order to rig an esoteric debate over public policy, you can attempt to shroud your agitprop in the veneer of science.

While these are all diabolically effective methods of manipulating political discourse, the latter, which involves corporate funding of academic research, is the most insidious of all. But the good news is that the last few weeks provided important reminders about the problem -- and why scrutiny of sources is so important.

At the national level, media organizations frothed with news about Stanford University researchers supposedly determining that organic food food is no more healthy than conventionally produced food. In the rush to generate audience-grabbing headlines, most of these news outlets simply regurgitated the Stanford press release, which deliberately stressed that researchers "did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives."

The word "deliberately" is important here -- as watchdog groups soon noted, Stanford is a recipient of corporate largess from agribusinesses such as Cargill, which have an obvious vested financial interest in denigrating organics. Additionally, one of the researchers in question had previously been connected to infamous tobacco industry efforts to pay for skewed science. In light of those inconvenient truths, Stanford may have made the calculated decision to promote the part of the study that denigrated organics and downplay the part of the report that, according to the Los Angeles Times, found "evidence of higher blood levels of pesticide residues among children who ate conventionally grown food" and "antibiotic-resistant microbes more commonly found among conventionally reared chicken and pork."

In the same week that this all broke, a similar controversy hit local politics in Montana.There, according to the Missoulian, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer used his bully pulpit to highlight how the University of Montana's esteemed brand was being used by corporate forces "mounting an effort to convince the 2013 Legislature to change how the state Revenue Department values their property in attempt to lower their taxes." As the Missoulian's Chuck Johnson reports, Schweitzer complained to the university president about a study "done by a law professor under contract for Cablevison/Bresnan that criticized how the state values certain types of business property." That professor, Kirsten Juras, "was hired by the cable company to do the study, and she presented it to a legislative committee in July" after "provid(ing) the company with ongoing drafts of her study" while it was in progress.

In both of these cases, the response to the pushback was predictable -- and predictably unconvincing. In Stanford's case, the Huffington Post reports that officials flatly "denied any such link" between Cargill cash and the way the study was framed, insisting that "the Cargill money went to a department not directly involved in the research." This retort, though, assumes that money coming to the university in one department cannot affect research and P.R. from another department.

At the University of Montana, meanwhile, Juras went on the offense, accusing Schweitzer of trying to "interfere with academic freedom" and prevent professors from "be(ing) able to criticize the government.” But he did nothing of the sort. He didn't say professors shouldn't be at liberty to study what they want to study and criticize what they want to criticize -- he simply raised questions about whether corporate money improperly tilts that study and those criticisms, and whether, at minimum, the public has a right to know when that corporate money is flowing to an allegedly independent academic voice.

This gets to why scrutinizing science and its funding sources is so important: It forces more questions and fosters a more vigorous public debate. So, for example, when it came to the organic study, Stanford researchers were quickly put on the defensive, prompting a rare and valuable cross-examination of their findings -- the kind to which many scientific studies are (sadly) never subjected. Likewise in Montana, Schweitzer's criticism brought rare attention to an esoteric-but-significant tax proposal -- one that he says would "shift $100 million in taxes from a dozen out-of-state corporations to 45 Montana businesses and 350,000 homes." It also called into question whether taxpayers want public university professors moonlighting as corporate consultants -- and then subtly ascribing public-university credibility to their corporate work.

Such back-and-forth questioning is the foundation of solid scientific inquiry, and should be the basis for sound public policymaking. Indeed, questioning is designed to get us closer to what we all (supposedly) want: the actual truth.

Of course, questions, when deployed malevolently, can also be used to momentarily obscure the truth. As climate change deniers show time and time again, tiny, inane queries or conspiracy theories -- no matter how disconnected from data - can be used to undermine decades of scientific research and well-established facts. But even that kind of malicious use of inquiry should eventually serve the larger cause of finding the truth, for they present yet more opportunity for refutation and ridicule. (Proving that point, recall that even in the United States -- the only major country where climate scientists face full-on harassment and where major media voices deny its existence -- most people believe climate change is happening and support efforts to address it.)

Put it all together, and the bottom line becomes clear: Whether in questions of food policy, telecom policy, climate policy or any other contentious issue at the national or local issue, questions -- even uncomfortable ones about paymasters -- are good and necessary. As the last few weeks showed, they prevent us from submitting to corporate subterfuge and do not allow controversial findings to become assumed fact simply because they come from a venerable source.

They force us, in other words, to remember Ronald Reagan's aphorism: trust, but verify.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

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Bad Science Brian Schweitzer Cable Organic Food Telecommunications