Thursday, 20 October 2011

Public health research and the appeal to motive fallacy

A week or so back, I had an exchange on twitter about Kate Fox and SIRC (Social Issues Research centre) – essentially, I was told, we should dismiss Ms Fox’s arguments because she (or rather the organisation that employs her) was receiving significant income from the drinks industry.

The question I want to pose relates directly to this argument – that, if I am paid to study something by those with an ‘interest’ (however defined), then my results, opinions and conclusions are to be ignored as tainted. Indeed, the first resort of those defending the Church of Public Health from criticism is very often to question the academic honour of the source cited by critics.

In Kate Fox’s case the attack – directed at the organisation employing her - comes from a BMJ article from 1999 (yes, that’s 12 whole years ago):

But on closer inspection it transpires that this research organisation shares the same offices, directors, and leading personnel as a commercial market research company called MCM Research. Both organisations are based at 28 St Clements, Oxford, and both have social anthropologist Kate Fox and psychologist Dr Peter Marsh as directors, and Joe McCann as a research and training manager.

The scenario becomes even more interesting when one reads the list of MCM's clients. These include Bass Taverns, the Brewers and Licensed Retail Association, the Cider Industry Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, Conoco, Coral Racing, Grand Metropolitan Retail, the Portman Group (jointly funded by Bass, Courage, Guinness, etc), Pubmaster, Rank Leisure, and Whitbread Inns, as well as several Australian brewing concerns and several independent television companies.

The implication of all this is that, when Ms Fox writes about drinking culture (a subject on which she is undoubtedly expert) we should ignore what she says since much of her research was funded by the drinks industry. The problem with this is that there cannot be a wholly independent research funder – all funders, whether commercial, governmental or charitable begin with a brief or a statement of mission.

What we are doing is creating a false dichotomy of objectives between different funders and different research. In most cases we dismiss commercial research, assuming it is partisan and must be ignored, whereas we do not ascribe the same constraints to other funding sources and especially government funding sources. We presume that government and the “third sector” are inevitably benign with unchallengeable motives whereas business is malign with motives always open to question.

Not only does such an approach imply that researchers undertaking projects for business organisations are dishonourable, it also suggests that the process of research – the methods, the data analysis and the reporting – are also open to question. Yet researchers – whether in academia or elsewhere – cannot afford to ‘fix’ results or hide data especially where there are risks of what might be termed ‘commercial contamination’.

Yet the most comprehensive passive smoking study, some of the most interesting research into drinking behaviour and much of the detailed study of links between ingredients and obesity are ignored by the Church of Public Health because of links to the tobacco, drink or food industry.

This, of course, doesn’t stop various organisations researching the effects of tobacco, drink or food taking funding from the pharmaceuticals industry. Nor does it stop organisations such as ASH shamelessly plugging the products of their pharmaceutical industry sponsors.

Of course we should know about the source of funding. But we should also be prepared to accept that good research is just that – good research. And rather than (as we saw with Stirling University recently) hiding detailed data from other researchers, we should encourage replication of studies so as to broaden our understanding. Seeking to damn the research through association is lousy science and pretty poor public policy making.

Plus of course appeal to motive is a logical fallacy!


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