Numerous chemical news stories focus on studies that are far from conclusive. One problem with many studies is the impact of researcher biases. While we all would like to believe that researchers’ motives are unbiased and pure, the reality is incentives and personal opinions can have a huge impact on study design and results. Theoretically, researchers are supposed to try to prove a “null hypothesis.” That means that rather than try to prove their theory, they act as a sort of devil’s advocate, attempting to show no effect. In that case, biases may be kept in check and positive associations should be more robust. But researchers need to get published and attract research dollars, which often depends on producing studies with positive associations that are statistically significant. Accordingly, they may work the data to generate positive associations.
Good researchers will strive to keep their biases in check, while still working toward finding something interesting. Yet others add “spin” to weak and meaningless “findings” to garner publication and media interest—and more funding. In a Nature magazine editorial, Arizona State University Professor Dan Sarewitz points to such biases amongst industry researchers working for drug approvals in the pharmaceutical industry.(1) But the problem is also prevalent within the politically driven field of government-funded(2) chemical and environmental policy, where funding needs and political biases play a big role.(3)
Unlike their counterparts in industry, government and university researchers are rarely held accountable for their mistakes. For example, if a drug harms the public, pharmaceutical companies pay dearly and can be driven out of business. In contrast, government and tenured academic researchers continue their work even when useful products are removed from commerce because of their research claims.
Sometimes government-funded research is driven by political agendas. For example, politicians have funded BPA research ad nauesum because activist claims and headlines have generated fear among consumers. The additional funding has not discovered much of anything new, but the resulting weak and largely inconclusive research continues to generate yet more headlines and fears. A similar situation has arisen because of press coverage related to Triclosan, the anti-bacterial chemical found in soap.(4) Is there a good reason for more government funding for research on Triclosan rather than on finding cures for cancers? Not really. Triclosan has been well studied and used safely for decades, with enough research to indicate that its benefits outweigh the alleged risks.(5)
Researchers face a number of other challenges to establishing the validity of their findings. These include challenges association with finding a truly random sample, sometimes insufficient sample size, confounding factors, recall bias, and, researcher bias.
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(1) Daniel Sarewitz, “Beware the Creeping Cracks of Bias,” Nature, May 9, 2012.
(2) Tibor R. Machan, “Bias in Government Science,” Mises Daily, June 04, 2000.
(3) Michael H. Huesemann, “The Inherent Biases in Environmental Research and Their Effects on Public Policy,” Futures 34 (2002): 621–633
(4) Michelle Yeomans. “Scientists Receive New Grant to Extend Research on Triclosan,” CosmeticsDesign.com, 20-August 2013.
(5) For more details see Angela Logomasini, “Shocking” Truth about Government and Soap,” Openmarket, May 13, 2013.