The importance of disclosure

There is quite an astonishing article published on Comment Is Free at the moment, bemoaning the widespread publication of ‘flawed’ scientific research and the misreporting of scientific evidence by journals and the popular press:

People who use science to inform their decisions and policies, on anything from cancer prevention to climate change and food safety, know about the hierarchy of reliability. There are “facts” in press releases, newspaper articles and blog entries, which are on average less trustworthy than, say, information in reports from Britain’s Royal Society or the US National Institutes of Health. And if a report appears in a peer-reviewed journal, where articles are examined by independent experts before being published, it elicits instant and widespread respect all round.

But not from me. I actually read many of those journals and it’s not uncommon for scientific articles to be egregiously and obviously flawed, often because basic rules of research have been violated.

Now, ordinarily, this is a topic which attracts my sympathies and Miller’s brief CiF biography does indicate some fairly impeccable academic and professional credentials:

Dr Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration from 1977 to 1994.

But, on reading the evidence he presents in the article, in support of his complaint, something about his overt focus on allegedly ‘flawed’ research on genetically modified crops just didn’t ring true and a quick search of the internet later I uncovered this entry for Miller on Sourcewatch:

Miller on Biotechnology

With Gregory Conko he wrote in an article for the European Science and Environment Forum website which suggests that concerns about the safety of GM food are only because of “trade protectionism” and “anti-science fearmongering”.

Miller and Conko argue against the adoption of the precautionary principle (PP), which would insist on safety testing of GM foods before they are released, on the grounds that “this erects an almost insurmountable barrier against new products because nothing can be proved totally safe – at least, not to the standard demanded by anti-technology extremists.”

Miller spreads his message through the Heartland Institute, a Chicago based corporate funded think tank.

The 2004 article “Science Debunks Precautionary Principle” quotes Miller as saying: “A large number of people in poor nations have food allergies,” (milk, wheat, and nuts) “Biotechnology can remove the allergens … so people in developing countries can enjoy some of these foods.”

Which goes on to add the following information:

Tobacco industry document information

A 1994 memo written by the Apco Associates PR firm (now called Apco Worldwide) for Philip Morris (PM) discusses plans to create a European branch of the PM-backed “junk science” front group The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. The memo states,

Specifically, we recommend that a European TASSC be formulated to do the following:
Preempt unilateral action against industry.
Associate anti-industry “scientific”studies with broader questions about government research and regulations • Link the tobacco issue with other more “politically correct” products.
Have non-industry messengers provide reasons for legislators, business executives and media to view policies drawn from unreliable scientific studies with extreme caution.

The memo specifically cites Henry I. Miller as a “key supporter” who might be willing to assist in the execution of the project:

For example, Dr. Henry I. Miller, Visiting Fellow and Visiting Scholar of the Institute of International Studies of the Hoover Institute of Stanford University, is one example of a key supporter with strong academic and international credentials who might assist us in this project.
An undated TASSC newsletter (called “The Catalyst”) contains an article stating that TASSC member-scientist Dr. Henry Miller, (“a visiting scholar from the Hoover Institution),” helped draft the 5 Guiding Principles of TASSC. Listed along with Miller as another TASSC member who helped draft the Guiding Principles is James E. Enstrom, a scientist whose work was cited in The U.S. Government’s racketeering case against Big Tobacco as having assisted the tobacco industry in perpetrating fraud and deception upon the American public.

Before listing, amongst Miller’s affiliations, his role as a scientific advisor to the George C Marshall Institute:

The George C. Marshall Institute (GMI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1984. The think tank‘s mission is to “encourage the use of sound science in making public policy about important issues for which science and technology are major considerations.” The “program emphasizes issues in national security and the environment.”

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest: “The Marshall Institute investigates facts concerning global climate change. The Institute also studies the implications of the Kyoto Protocol upon national security. The Institute is partially supported by the Exxon Education Foundation and American Standard Companies.”

‘Sound Science’ for those who’ve not come across the term before is a subjective phrase with no scientific validity or basis, one that is best understood by reference to this definition, provided by Ong ad Glanz in the American Journal of Public Health.

Public health professionals need to be aware that the “sound science” movement is not an indigenous effort from within the profession to improve the quality of scientific discourse, but reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients.

Peer review in science is, of course, important… but then so is the open disclosure of interests and amongst Miller’s more interesting connections is his membership of the ‘No More Scares’ group referenced in this article from PR Watch:

Inside PR, a public relations industry trade publication, termed the press conference “an unprecedented attack” and noted that “Steven Milloy and his colleagues . . . could scarcely have timed their tirade against Fenton Communications and the public interest groups it represents any worse. As Milloy and his cohorts accused consumer activists of provoking unnecessary alarm among the public, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were providing consumers with a stark reminder of the important role these self-appointed watchdogs perform as a necessary counterbalance to untrammeled corporate power and as a source of pressure on recalcitrant regulators. . . . Over the years consumer and environmental activists have done far more good than harm. Thanks to the work of those who agitate for social change, the roads have become safer; the environment has become cleaner; food has become more nutritious; consumers are in gen-eral far better informed about the products they buy; and workers are in general better rewarded and at less risk of injury or abuse.”

The same cannot be said for the principal figures in the “No More Scares” campaign. Co-editors of “The Fear Profiteers” included Milloy, Bonner Cohen, John Carlisle, Michael Fumento, Michael Gough, Henry Miller, Kenneth Smith and Elizabeth Whelan. All have a track record of accepting funding from and defending industries that make dangerous products and pollute the environment. Many, including Milloy himself, have been outspoken apologists for the tobacco industry, one of the deadliest consumer products.

One of the more interesting names in the list of Miller’s associates is that of Michael Fumento:

On January 13, 2006, Scripps Howard News Service announced it would terminate its business relationship with Fumento and cease carrying his column. At issue were opinion columns Fumento had written promoting the biotechnology firm Monsanto while working at the Hudson Institute. The connection between Fumento and Monsanto was first revealed by an investigative reporter in Business Week.[11] General manager Peter Copeland explained that Fumento

did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson received a $60,000 grant from Monsanto. […] Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers.

After the story was published, Fumento acknowledged that he benefited from Monsanto’s grant to Hudson:

It was a $60,000 book grant to my employer, solicited back in 1999, which was applied to pre-established salary and benefits.

Quite how it that Groan has managed to drop such an obvious bollock by running Miller’s article without a biography that references Miller’s interests rather escapes me – it has taken a little while but the direction that the thread is now taking is one in which Miller’s background is being explored and opened up to scrutiny by commenters, which is hardly an unusual occurrance on CiF for all that Miller, or perhaps one of the Groan’s on sub-editors, has tried to obliquely provide the article with a thin veneer of respectability by incorporating a link to Ben Goldacre’s regular Bad Science column (the link goes to Ben’s blog, btw, which runs his Guardian articles but with more ‘meat’ in them).

Peer review, as Miller does quite correctly note, is essential in scientific research… but then so too is the open disclosure of interests, especially interests which may introduce bias into the reporting of scientific evidence.

  • ross

    I agree in that I’m all for openness with regard to potential conflicts of interests. But conflicts of interests don’t necessarily negate ones arguments, it just means they should be examined that little bit more carefully.