Two stories today about science, one implicitly about how money influences reported outcomes, and another about how people don't really understand science.
First, the New York Times reported Monday on a $100m National Institutes of Health clinical trial that is getting $67m indirectly from five major alcohol producers:
[T]he mantra that moderate drinking is good for the heart has never been put to a rigorous scientific test, and new research has linked even modest alcohol consumption to increases in breast cancer and changes in the brain. That has not stopped the alcoholic beverage industry from promoting the alcohol-is-good-for-you message by supporting scientific meetings and nurturing budding researchers in the field.
Five companies that are among the world’s largest alcoholic beverage manufacturers — Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg — have so far pledged $67.7 million to a foundation that raises money for the National Institutes of Health, said Margaret Murray, the director of the Global Alcohol Research Program at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which will oversee the study.
George F. Koob, the director of the alcohol institute, said the trial will be immune from industry influence and will be an unbiased test of whether alcohol “in moderation” protects against heart disease. “This study could completely backfire on the alcoholic beverage industry, and they’re going to have to live with it,” Dr. Koob said.
“The money from the Foundation for the N.I.H. has no strings attached. Whoever donates to that fund has no leverage whatsoever — no contribution to the study, no input to the study, no say whatsoever.” But Dr. Koob, like many of the researchers and academic institutions playing pivotal roles in the trial, has had close ties to the alcoholic beverage industry.
Keep in mind, funding does not automatically create bias. But it does make people wonder about the study's legitimacy. (This is an enormous problem in elections, too.)
When people start doubting the legitimacy of a study—or an entire body of research—we can get into real trouble. In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, climate scientist Ben Santer explains how he's fighting back against ignorance:
After decades of seeking to advance scientific understanding, reality suddenly shifts, and you are back in the cold darkness of ignorance. The ignorance starts with President Trump. It starts with untruths and alternative facts. The untruth that climate change is a “hoax” engineered by the Chinese. The alternative fact that “nobody really knows” the causes of climate change. These untruths and alternative facts are repeated again and again. They serve as talking points for other members of the administration. From the Environment Protection Agency administrator, who has spent his career fighting against climate change science, we learn the alternative fact that satellite data show “leveling off of warming” over the past two decades. The energy secretary tells us the fairy tale that climate change is due to “ocean waters, and this environment in which we live.” Ignorance trickles down from the president to members of his administration, eventually filtering into the public’s consciousness.
I have to believe that even in this darkness, though, there is still a thin slit of blue sky. My optimism comes from a gut-level belief in the decency and intelligence of the people of this country. Most Americans have an investment in the future — in our children and grandchildren, and in the planet that is our only home. Most Americans care about these investments in the future; we want to protect them from harm. That is our prime directive. Most of us understand that to fulfill this directive, we can’t ignore the reality of a warming planet, rising seas, retreating snow and ice, and changes in the severity and frequency of droughts and floods. We can’t ignore the reality that human actions are part of the climate-change problem, and that human actions must be part of the solution to this problem. Ignoring reality is not a viable survival strategy.
People are attacking truth on several fronts. We've got to keep fighting.