All Research Is Biased – Might As Well Get Paid For It

Capitalist Epistemology: Is Money Truth?

On November 28, 2014, the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) posted an announcement that it would no longer publish papers from authors with financial ties to industry with the aim of eliminating harmful bias from published articles. I’ve since talked to some researchers who quickly pointed out that everyone has biases, so eliminating financial conflicts of interest will not result in objective research free from fraud or manipulation, and I agree with them on that point. [Note, a response from Fiona Godlee clarifies this policy: “The policy applies only to editorials and clinical education articles designed to guide patient care and does not extend to other types of article published in The BMJ.” updated 1/14/15.]

As far as I know, Gregor Mendel had no financial conflicts of interest, but his data proved Pharmaceutical-cartonhis theory of genetics perfectly—too perfectly, almost everyone agrees, to be true (see a brief discussion here). Paradoxically, Mendel seems to have cleaned up his data in order to help promote his theory, which happened to be true, so he used untruth to promulgate truth. Other researchers have let their biases affect them more nefariously, letting sexism and racism cloud their ability to form accurate or even coherent theories of health, intelligence, or moral agency.

But the goal of science has always been for an objective pursuit of truth free from emotional bias. Philosopher Alison M. Jaggar made a compelling argument that no scientific inquiry is value free or separate from emotion. She argues, on the contrary, that emotion is a necessary part of any pursuit of knowledge. “Disinterested inquiry,” she says, “Is an impossible dream.” (See “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.”) A scientific researcher with no bias and no values is both impossible and undesirable, I agree, but it is one thing to have a socially constructed bias and another to have a financially constructed bias. Being paid to have a bias raises a whole new set of problems.

I don’t mean to suggest that pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies should be prohibited from hiring scientific researchers or even that those researchers should be prohibited from publishing in scientific journals. They should, of course, have adequate oversight to detect and prevent fraud, but I’m sure many great products in medicine and elsewhere have resulted from an unbridled pursuit of profit.

The problem is that we don’t have enough independent researchers to ensure a robust search for solutions to human problems that may not lead to profit. Further, we don’t have enough independent researchers to prevent harm from flawed conclusions that may, in fact, generate a profit in spite of their flaws at great risk to public health.

We need publicly funded research centers or anonymously funded research centers where researchers can pursue knowledge that may or may not be convenient for corporations. These researchers would be freer to publish negative results of “promising” treatments. They would be freer to pursue treatments that may be effective but less profitable. As anyone familiar with this problem is aware, it is far more profitable to market maintenance treatments than treatments that will actually cure any given medical condition. Imagine if public funding were also used to manufacture inexpensive and effective cures rather than expensive and less effective treatments.

Of course, this is not the direction the United States (or the world, really) is heading. Rather, we have now entered the age of “venture philanthropy.” (Read Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones’ piece in the New York Times. ) Venture philanthropy enables foundations to use tax-exempt donations to invest in for-profit companies. Rather than using public funds to ensure research free from financial conflicts, venture philanthropy uses public funds to develop and market new products. As Hinkes-Jones puts it, “If the intent is to cure rare diseases, then we should be increasing the budget for the National Institutes of Health and other research initiatives. Instead of gala balls and donor drives, higher taxes on the same rich benefactors could be used to fund the research that isn’t already being supported.”

When the BMJ announced it would no longer publish pieces by authors with industry ties, one chilling line from the article leapt out at me: “In some fields—for example, obesity medicine, genetics, and rheumatology—we may find it difficult to recruit authors free of relevant financial links with industry. It might even prove impossible.” Somehow, we must find the will to make it possible for researchers to make a living and publish their findings without joining the payroll of for-profit corporations. I do not believe all researchers are motivated only by the opportunity to accumulate wealth. Jonas Salk passed the opportunity to amass great wealth with the polio vaccine. Others deserve the chance to do the same.

Is Bill Gates a Trojan Horse?

Bill Gates gives away huge sums of money. I could provide some links here to verify that he gives away huge piles of cash, but, really, is anyone going to claim he does not? It is obvious that he could not give away so much money if he did not happen to have enormous bank balances to begin with. So, thank goodness Bill Gates was able to become so insanely rich. And thank goodness all those corporate sponsors of aid were able to amass gigantic storehouses of funds to distribute globally to alleviate poverty and disease while promoting free markets and democracy. Except maybe it is not that simple.Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie saw philanthropy as a duty of the wealthy. The mere fact that someone was able to obtain great wealth is evidence enough for man that that person is a great judge of what should be done with the money. The wealthy must serve as role models and administer funds in ways that are good for the poorer members of society, even if their choices are not popular. Carnegie said:

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community–the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

Apparently, the wealthy fear giving the money directly to the poor might corrupt them or tempt them to bring about their own destruction. So, the benevolent man of means, and Carnegie does not mention women of wealth, should work for the care and improvement of the lower classes.

And in doing so, the wealthy establish not only their honor, but also their power. As Thomas Hobbes said, “There can be no greater argument to a man, of his own power, than to find himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs: and this is that conception wherein consisteth charity.”  Through charity, the wealthy shape the aspirations of society, the resources for improvement, and the goals of the impoverished. The poor cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions about what is good and proper for the course of society. In order to receive the generosity of the powerful, the weak must assume a position of obedience and servitude. The superior minds will lead with love if only the grateful masses will follow.

But it does not end there—the wealthy engage in a kind of philanthropy that actually seeks to oppress and exploit the poor. This is true in many instances, but it currently most obvious in some forms of foreign aid donations.

In the current political climate in the United States, we often hear that aiding people engenders a culture of dependence. Most people imagine that the recipients of aid become too lazy to work for their own improvement, but that is not how aid creates dependence. Rather, it can create dependence by destroying any possibility of self-sustaining local markets. Economist Dambisa Moyo sums up the problem of aid to Africa when she says, “One wonders how a system of flooding foreign markets with American food, which puts local farmers out of business, actually helps better Africa.” Michaela Schieesl made a similar point, saying, “The United States spends $1.2 billion on food for the world’s hungry, making it the biggest provider of food aid. It is also the biggest contributor to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). But this seemingly charitable commitment comes with a major hitch: Instead of donating money, the United States donates food, almost all of which it produces itself.”

The US donates food not as a means of helping struggling societies, but rather as a means of subsidizing American farmers and agribusiness. By dumping free food grown in the US, farmers in foreign countries are put out of businesses. Of course, if they turn to alternative crops such as poppy, coca or even tobacco, the farmers are condemned for contributing to the global drug trade and supporting violence and addiction.

The ETC Group in Canada now warns us of another scheme to use philanthropy to help entrench monopoly powers of transnational corporations under the guise of aiding poor farmers:

“The world’s two richest men – Bill Gates and Mexico’s Carlos Slim – are working with CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) to make bargain GE seeds and traits available to farmers in the global South. The notion that farmers will benefit from a post-patent regulatory regime and Gene Giant charity is patently absurd.”

This international aid effort has the effect of ensuring more and more of the world’s food production will be controlled by transnational corporation promoting market-based “solutions” to global food insecurity. The ETC Group notes that the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, which includes all the giant gene producers, describes itself as working with G8 and G20 to “foster multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions.”

Not all aid is bad, however, and giving can save and improve lives. Moyo and other critics of aid are quick to point out the difference between rescue or relief aid and aid that permanently alters economic structures. My opinion is that smaller donors tend to choose charities based on how they relieve suffering rather than how they either guide, manipulate, or oppress the poor. Modest earners give a higher percentage of their income than the super rich.  In an article for The Atlantic, Ken Stern noted,  “In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.”   Stern added that among donations from the wealthy,  “Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.” More modest earners are more likely to look out for the interest of the poor.

Addressing income inequality would have two positive effects: First, it would help alleviate the need for any aid. Second, it would help more modest earners to give more and give more effectively. And, no, lifting people off the floor will not make them behave as those at the very top (in the stratosphere of wealth disparities). Rather, as the poor enter the middle class, they give more than the super wealthy and give with an aim to relieving suffering and not to creating monopoly power or consumer dependence.

Also, be sure to read Peter Buffett’s comments on the same subject here.

Finally, for an example of a charity operating from the ground up, please see Shoulder to the Stone.