Bending Science is an intelligent and compelling blend of investigative journalism and theoretical analysis of the structural and functional flaws of the research enterprise, from the development of testable ideas to the use of its results for practical purposes. The text focuses on the areas of environmental and public health sciences, but the conceptual work developed by Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy E. Wagner can be easily applied to a variety of other scientific domains. The narrative is engaging and informative. Namely, the reader is gently invited to immerse himself/herself into plainly presented and undoubtedly persuasive "case studies" of research distorted by individuals whose economic and ideological motives are made transparent.
The conceptual glue that compels diverse "case studies" into a unified narrative is the belief that the notion of a scientific enterprise as separate from the world of public policy is unrealistic. The scientific enterprise is cleverly conceptualized by the authors as a "pipeline". The latter refers to a series of chronologically-organized, research-related activities, from the generation and empirical test of hypotheses/theories to the interpretation and dissemination of research results. McGarity and Wagner argue that the "scientific pipeline" can be easily contaminated by "advocates", individuals with specific ideological and economic motives in mind. The authors forcefully remark that the contamination can occur at any point in the pipeline and not only outside of the pipeline where the results of research projects are expected to be used by policy-oriented individuals and agencies to change the fabric of our society.
McGarity and Wagner believe in a responsible government and justice system. This belief drives their sense of urgency for regulatory actions intended to repair the scientific pipeline and re-establish the sovereignty of the scientific method over research activities and outcomes. They suggest that the first step towards re-establishing the integrity of the pipeline is for independent scientists and the general public to acknowledge that the scientific world can be infiltrated by "science-based advocacy". The latter is based on the principle that the ends justify the means, a principle that is contrary to the essence of the scientific endeavor.
Awareness that the pipeline and science-based advocacy are not kept separate is a necessary, but obviously not a sufficient condition for resolving the infiltration problem. The authors identify several additional remedial activities. Exact and systematic replications of existing studies conducted by independent researchers are among the best remedies for evaluating and probably confute outcome-based research results. Replications have the advantage of exposing methodological problems while concurrently providing robust counterfactual evidence. Yet replications are costly and resources finite. Hence rigorous analyses of the methodology of outcome-based research and its data by independent researchers are to be used instead. Unfortunately, even this option is problematic because of independent researchers' reluctance to devote time to "research" that is likely to have been compromised by outside influences.
Research driven by the attainment of pre-determined results, which are thought to support a specific economic or ideological view, merely exemplifies a blatant distortion of the unbiased principles of the scientific method. Other instances of distortion exist, however, that are less apparent and that are likely to occur at later stages of the scientific pipeline or outside it. For instance, regulatory agencies and private institutions routinely rely on panels of experts whose task is to examine an area of research and make recommendations regarding specific practical implementations of its results. If these panels are fitted with individuals who are firmly committed to a specific view, their effectiveness in evaluating the available research and in making recommendations regarding its potential for implementation will be biased and thus antithetical to the principles of the scientific enterprise. Think for a moment of the disastrous consequences of the application of a laissez-faire, free-market ideology to government institutions (e.g., regulatory agencies), which was exercised by staffing them with individuals whose ideology filtered out empirical data that did not fit their agendas.
Of course, not all the research sponsored by advocates of a specific economic or ideological view is corrupted if the advocates do not interfere with the research process and its outcomes. Yet now abundant are examples of the ease with which research and its outcomes are manipulated in the name of motives antithetic to science. Indeed, the exercise of science entails the formulation of questions that can be answered by means of unbiased procedures. Such action should not (and does not) involve procedures that make a given outcome more possible than another or that distort the interpretation of the obtained outcome. Notwithstanding the principles that the scientific endeavor should embody, evidence of advocacy-based distortions is robust and well-documented in "Bending science" and thus difficult to discount as a statistical aberration.
Sensibly, McGarity and Wagner not only identify remedial activities against unwarranted intrusions into the scientific pipeline but also recognize the obstacles to such activities. These obstacles translate into thorny dilemmas. For instance, how can independent researchers' reluctance to put to the scientific test outcome-oriented research be removed? How can one protect independent researchers from harassment by vocal and powerful advocates of ideologies or economic interests when the latter conflict with the researchers' choices of research activities and outcomes?
Undoubtedly, the evidence-based approach adopted by the authors in gathering evidence of distortion makes Bending Science an indispensable read for our current troubled times. All in all, this book is a must-read not only for researchers devoted to the scientific method but also for all who wish to become competent consumers of research that can influence their lives. The narrative is an eye-opener, which will provide the reader with tools to understand the research process and protect himself/herself from advocacy-based distortions.
© 2008 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York