One of my main beefs on this blog has been, and probably will remain, the perpetual inability of the media to identify potential conflicts of interest on the part of op-ed writers, experts approvingly quoted in headline stories, and so forth.
My reason for pointing this out is not paranoia on my part, nor is it, as one of my targets once pointed out, an attempt to discredit people or institutions as paid shills (except in cases where they obviously are). Instead, what concerns me is the way in which money may shape public debate in ways that are seldom acknowledged. At the very least, funding allows certain voices to be amplified, while others are comparatively stifled. This always raises the question of conscious or unconscious manipulation of the terms of a debate, not just by the recipients of the money (the speakers), but also by the donors, who choose one recipient over another.
Transparency on the part of donors and donees is an essential check against this, but the information is not always made publicly available. This site is devoted to making it available, wherever possible.
In the meantime, certain areas of scientific publication, like medical research, have instituted rules regarding full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. So, in some cases, do stock analyst writers (although the rules are a little looser there). In such cases, the fact that a researcher has received, say, an honorarium or fellowship from a pharmaceutical company doesn’t necessarily mean his research is forged or deceitful. However, disclosing that link does allow the rest of us to weigh the publication appropriately, and perhaps to seek out some corroborating data if we are suspicious. Think tanks and op ed writers should, in my opinion, be bound by similar rules.
Sometimes, of course, this is irrelevant. Sometimes I am rightly called out for writing posts from which readers could infer that I am trying to discredit people as shills or hacks for no particular reason (this is not my intent). But sometimes it really does matter, and knowledge is power. It matters a great deal, for instance, to know that the “independent” C.D. Howe Institute’s report promoting private garbage collection was commissioned by the private-sector trade association the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA), in exchange for $50,000. It matters that the Fraser Institute was collecting sizeable donations from tobacco companies while producing studies arguing against tobacco regulation, and claiming that cigarette smoke doesn’t cause lung cancer. It matters that the institutes didn’t share this information when they published their data.
In the spirit of disclosure, I will go first. Neither I nor this blog have received any funding from any source related to my public writings (and I am, at the moment, unemployed). In the past I have received scholarship funding exclusively from public universities for academic excellence, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Should this information change, I will update it here. In particular, any funding to operate this blog will always be fully disclosed here.
During the 2011 election campaign, I have registered as a Conservative volunteer at the Tory Nation website. My reasons for doing so are explained here.Tweet