Tag Archives: Foreign Oil

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.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: America’s Dependence on Mideast Oil

Earlier this morning, I came across a headline that was a bit shocking (to me): “Americans Support the Keystone XL Pipeline by Wide Margin.” All of the data I’d seen regarding polls of Americans showed that there certainly wasn’t a wide margin in support or against the pipeline. So, with my curiosity piqued, I clicked the article to find out that 67% (of the survey respondents) support building the pipeline. That still seemed a bit surprising, as, like I said, most polls I’d seen had stayed in the range of 45/55 or 55/45.

Upon getting to the actual survey, I scrolled to the question that led to the headline. Here’s the question that was read to survey respondents:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the KeystoneX-L pipeline?

Do you see anything wrong with this question?

Let’s start with the idea that they’re telling respondents what supporters say and opponents say. If the respondent doesn’t really have a strong opinion about the question, they may prefer to identify with one group or the other (and they might even if they have a strong opinion!) One could argue that there’s a response bias present. There has been quite a bit of press about “America’s dependence on foreign oil.” So, someone might not want to oppose that viewpoint in a survey. That is, the respondent wouldn’t want to appear, (to the person conducting the survey), that they don’t think that reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil is as important as the environment.

Juxtaposing the dependence on foreign oil with environmental impact is a bit unfair. As I said in the previous paragraph, I’d bet that most people have heard/read something about the America’s dependence on foreign oil, but they probably don’t know very much about the environmental impact of oil. Now, that could be a messaging problem for the environmental movement, but there hasn’t been a compelling enough case made. (If there were, there certainly wouldn’t have been this many people who were “A-OK” with building the pipeline.)

Lastly, let’s actually examine this so called dependence on foreign oil. From the US Energy Information Administration:

The United States relied on net imports (imports minus exports) for about 40% of the petroleum (crude oil and petroleum products) that we consumed in 2012. Just over half of these imports came from the Western Hemisphere. Our dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005. [Emphasis added]

In doing the math, 60% of the petroleum (oil) that the US consumed in 2012 was produced domestically — inside the US! In doing some more math, we’re told that just over half of the imports came from the Western Hemisphere. Meaning, less than half of the imports are coming from countries outside of the Western Hemisphere. Meaning, less than half of the imports could be coming from the Mideast and we already know that only 40% of the oil consumed in the US comes from imports. In fact, this same agency tells us just how much oil is imported from Persian Gulf countries: 29%. So, 29% of the imports (40%) is how reliant the US is on Mideast oil. Again, doing the math the total US consumption of Mideast oil: 11.6%. Does 11.6% sound like dependence?

If you recall the last line of the quote from the agency: “Our dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005.

The next time you read survey data, I hope you’ll remember this post and consider just how construed the results may be.

[Note: The title of this post is a quote that was popularized by Mark Twain.]