'Alternative facts' not just in politics and media

A Michigan State University scholar is warning those who read about the latest groundbreaking research to proceed with caution.

"In , we recognize that we should think twice about trusting someone's decision if they have a significant vested interest that could skew their judgment," said Kevin Elliott, an associate professor who specializes in the philosophy and ethics of science. "When reading the latest scientific breakthrough, the same tactic should be applied."

Elliott is presenting an analysis of case studies this month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, annual meeting in Boston. He's addressing the issues that currently exist when it comes to conflicts of interest in research and offering advice on how to detect "alternative facts" when it comes to science.

According to Elliott, historians have gone back and analyzed a number of different cases where groups with a financial conflict of interest either deliberately withheld scientific information or lied about what they knew and even designed studies in order to obtain the results they preferred.

"The Volkswagen scandal is a good contemporary example of this, along with more historical cases such as the tobacco industry's research around cigarette smoking," he said.

Last year, it was discovered the German automaker was cheating emissions tests by installing a device in diesel engines that could detect when a test was being administered and could change the way the vehicle performed to improve results. This allowed the company to sell its cars in the United States while its engines emitted pollutants up to 40 times above what's accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Elliott added that when it comes to the , the "alternative facts" issue dates all the way back to the 1950s.

"When it comes to big tobacco, the industry developed a whole playbook of strategies to help manufacture doubt among consumers about the health implications of cigarette smoking," Elliott said. "They gave grants to researchers who they thought were likely to obtain results that they liked and developed industry-friendly journals to disseminate their findings."

Elliott added that similar strategies have also been used by big oil companies in response to climate change.

Besides employing an everyday skepticism to the research that exists today, Elliott suggests taking note of who is actually conducting the science and confirming if the science has been published in a well-respected, peer-reviewed journal.

"My number one piece of advice though would be to see what respected scientific societies like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences or the British Royal Society have to say about a specific topic," he said. "These societies frequently create reports around the current state of and by reviewing these reports, people can avoid being misled by individual scientists who might hold eccentric views."

Elliott's AAAS presentation will take place on Feb. 19.

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Citation: 'Alternative facts' not just in politics and media (2017, February 19) retrieved 13 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2017-02-alternative-facts-politics-media.html
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Feb 20, 2017
Another good example is psychiatry. But I know politically this is a tricky subject because of people wanting to eliminate undesirable behaviours. But hey I love a good debate, so any one want to?

Feb 20, 2017
Elliott added that similar strategies have also been used by big oil companies in response to climate change.

Dear Elliott: Do you take money from a gov't source, an NGO, and enviro group. Would that also not make you beholden to provide a return on investment. Do you even understand what it is that you are arguing??

Let me be clear: science is based on assumptions, data, theories, models, etc. Determining "accuracy" or "truth" based on a affiliations with the right political groups, organisation, peer circles, etc is not science - now that is propaganda!

Following this demented strategy will remove any chance of correcting errors. Talk about enforcing a religious zealotry.

Feb 20, 2017
Discarding "accuracy" or "truth" based on percieved affiliations with the political groups, organization, peer circles, etc is not science - now that is propaganda!

...fixed that for you

Feb 27, 2017
Include the State of New Jersey commissioning an "experiment" that would "prove" that cell phones cause accidents. The "researcher" began by "defining" a cell phone causing an accident if it was used within ten minutes of the accident occurring. So you could receive a call at a restaurant, get in your car and be plowed into by the spaced out son of a politician and your use of the cell phone would be blamed!

Feb 27, 2017
And there is the case of the "power law" scam, saying everything is governed by a "power law". To "prove" a "power law" conjecture, you take the logarithm of both sets of data and graph them against each other and, if they form a straight line, there is a "power law" connection. But, the logarithm squashes data down incredible, so even wildly varying values would look like a straight line! Neutrons, shoes, sofas, paper money, clouds, battleships and stars can be "proved" to decay in a "power law" based on their mass in this way.

Feb 27, 2017
Alternative facts

Can we stop calling them 'alternative facts' and just call them by their name: lies.

Feb 27, 2017
"Psychologist" Margaret Beale Spence gave children five of the same drawing of a child, smiling, skipping, only differing in color. Spencer than asked which child was sad. Trusting the crook, Spencer, the children assumed one child had to be sad, because she said so, and looked for the only clue. The color. It's already established that children are somber about dark colors, likely from a fear of the dark. So they choose the dark colored child as being sad. The crook, Spencer, then said this "proved" children are being taught to hate blacks.

Feb 27, 2017
Scientists themselves apply these sorts of criteria when reviewing research papers in new areas.

Another good example of the sort of thing this article is talking about is the vaccine scare promulgated in Britain by Andrew Wakefield. This individual published false research in order to bolster his financial schemes, which involved unnecessary and invasive procedures on developmentally challenged children. The fallout from this fraudulent paper has caused persistent resistance to child vaccination, compromising public health and subjecting an unknown number of children to unnecessary disease, with results up to and including death.

Feb 27, 2017
Craig Wells recommended, instead of eyewitnesses looking through a book of faces, that they be forced to look at photographs one at a time, focusing on each for ten minutes. Among other things, this can cause witnesses to see things in the picture they didn't see when they saw the actual individual, so they fail even to recognize the picture of the perpetrator. Also, with that kind of demand, they can get tired and give up. Wells said this reduces the number of false identifications. Not because thee are more correct identifications, but only because people give up and don't even try, and if there are no identifications, there are no false ones!

Feb 27, 2017
Can we stop calling them 'alternative facts' and just call them by their name: lies.

Ah, yes: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics. Call it what you want. Ones "lies" are another's "data."

There was an experiment. Someone reported the results. And only later does it become apparent that it may not have been as controlled as first thought. This happens to the best of scientists. Mendeleve's experiments in genetics have been shown to have had impossibly good data. Millikan's measurement of the charge of an electron was shown to have been much higher than it should have been. And in fact it was later discovered that when ALL of his experimental data were included, the result actually would have been much lower.

Scientists are human. Even completely honest ones screw up because they delude themselves. All it takes is funding from a biased source, and surprise: Results that confirm the bias. It's not usually malice, but the slightest incompetence that leads us astray.

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