Can We Trust Industry Funded Research?

Much of today’s food and nutrition research is paid for by commercial interests. Nutrition Diva explains how to detect bias—of all types.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
September 27, 2011
Episode #156

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Apparently, this is simply human nature: As a species, we find it more significant when something happens than when nothing happens. But when you really think about it, proving that something has no effect is often just as meaningful as showing that it has a positive or negative effect.

What is Confirmation Bias?

We all tend to pay more attention to research that confirms our worldview and to distrust or discount findings that don’t.

There’s another kind of prejudice in the scientific community known as confirmation bias.   Although scientists like to believe that they are completely objective, most have certain beliefs or suspicions about how things work.  Their ideas subtly and unconsciously influence how they design their studies and how they interpret the results. As a result, researchers are more likely to get results that confirm their underlying beliefs.

Confirmation bias also operates at the larger level of the scientific community. If my results are in line with generally-accepted ideas, they are more likely to be published.  As a result, it can be very difficult to challenge the conventional wisdom—even when the conventional wisdom is wrong.   It’s been known to happen.  For decades we told people that eating too many eggs would give you high cholesterol, for example.  Now we know that this is generally not the case.

People who report and comment on research (like yours truly) also suffer from ideological bias.  We tend to pay more attention to research that confirms our worldview and to distrust or discount findings that don’t.

Bias May be Easier to Detect in Industry Funded Research

One advantage to industry funded research may be that the bias is a lot easier to detect because it’s obvious what to look for. If I see that a study has been funded by a commercial interest, I’m going be looking for ways that they may have slanted the study design or interpretation of results in their favor. (So is the peer-review board that’s evaluating the study for publication.) The fact that industry funding is involved may even cause a study to be held to a slightly higher standard of objectivity.

But when a study has been funded by a university, a non-profit foundation, or a government grant, it’s not immediately clear what sort of assumptions or prejudices the researchers may have. Usually, the researchers themselves are not aware of their own biases.  That’s what makes ideological bias so insidious: We (both as individuals and as societies) are often the last to realize when we are under the influence. 

How the Scientific Method Corrects for Bias

Research is never going to be perfectly objective because it’s conducted—and interpreted--by humans. The scientific method is a system we’ve devised to try to compensate for our inescapable prejudices. One of the first rules is that no single research finding is definitive.  If I do an experiment and get a certain result, the next step is to see if you get the same result when you do the same experiment. If you don’t, we need to try to explain why. And for every explanation we come up with, we have to ask whether there are other equally plausible explanations besides the one we came up with. If there are, we have to rule one or the other out.