Learn to spot ‘alternative facts’ in science

The Volkswagen emissions scandal and past promotions of tobacco are two examples of “alternative facts” in science’s past, a researcher warns.

“In everyday life, we recognize that we should think twice about trusting someone’s decision if they have a significant vested interest that could skew their judgment,” says Kevin Elliott, an associate professor at Michigan State University who specializes in the philosophy and ethics of science. “When reading the latest scientific breakthrough, the same tactic should be applied.”

Elliott presented an analysis of case studies on February 19 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, annual meeting in Boston. He addressed 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 says.

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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 adds that when it comes to the tobacco industry, 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 says. “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.”

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Elliott adds that big oil companies have employed similar strategies 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 a well-respected, peer-reviewed journal has published the science.

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

Source: Michigan State University