Finger-wagger Marion Nestle is no stranger to inconsistent views: She’d deny food companies the right to make meaningful and honest positive claims about their products, for example, while entertaining proposals to force them to make meaningless negative statements to feed public fear. So it didn’t surprise us at all when we read this on Nestle’s Food Politics blog:
It is not difficult to design research studies to give sponsors the answers they want and to make sure they are conducted well. POM [a fruit juice company] is getting the best research that money can buy.
We don’t know whether POM or the researchers it worked with (including vegetarian diet promoter Dean Ornish) behaved in a scientifically sound manner, but Nestle’s quote is revealing. Unsurprisingly for a Center for Science in the Public Interest and Socialist Scholars Conference alum, Nestle appears blind to the fact that scientific research can be biased by more factors than money.
Of course, money can conceivably bias scientific research—say, the money of a multi-billion dollar non-profit foundation awarding sizable grants to build its case for “Twinkie taxes” which the well-drilled food cop will call “pricing strategies”. But can’t other factors, like a commitment to the belief that public health is re-fighting its “Finest Hour” in the tobacco wars, intervene? Oh yes it can: One meta-analysis identified this “white hat bias” in research on soft drinks and obesity.
If a researcher can design a research study to give a business the result it wants, why can’t a researcher design one for an activist? There’s no reason to think that one couldn’t—see, for an easy example, the “chicken feces” scare-study by the misnamed animal-rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine that was immediately panned by experts. After all, people fight, kill, and die for ideologies: There’s no reason to believe people can’t also fiddle the figures for them.