Conflict of Interest: The Importance of Independent Inquiry

For the last couple of months on Sunday nights, Fox has been airing a documentary that will probably be watched in science classes across America (when there’s a substitute teacher or otherwise) — Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Among other things, the show has taken the viewer on a journey back to the beginning of time. In one of the more recent episodes, host Neil deGrasse Tyson explained to viewers how we’ve come to know the age of the Earth.

In short, this came as a result of the work of scientist Clair Patterson. As a result of Patterson’s journey to determine the age of the Earth, he discovered some alarming findings related to the presence of lead in the environment. Through testing, he determined that the amount of lead in the environment wasn’t naturally occurring and concluded that the increased presence of lead near the ocean surface had to be man-made. He then was able to determine that this increase in lead in the oceans was because of leaded gasoline.

You’d think that a discovery like this would be well-received by those with influence. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

At the time, there was a scientist “on the other side” of the debate who had published claims long ago that leaded gasoline was “safe.” In fact, one scientist in particular, Robert A. Kehoe. Why is this scientist significant? Because he was funded by the very people who were benefitting from the sale of leaded gasoline — oil companies.

My point isn’t to vilify Kehoe or extol Patterson. Instead, I want to highlight the fact that despite Kehoe was a scientist with credentials, at the time, it wasn’t always clear when he was speaking on matters related to leaded gasoline that he was being funded by oil companies. That is, he failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest.

This scenario perfectly illustrates the importance of disclosing conflicts of interest. If one’s funding is coming from the very industry that one is studying, then it’s important to disclose that. As an example: if you’re a chemist and you’re doing research on tobacco and you’re funded by Marlboro (or some cleverly named organization that represents a number of tobacco companies), there’s a better chance than not that your funders might not be pleased if your findings reflect “negatively” on their business.

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