Idea laundering is a threat to business and civil society

The WSJ describes how idea laundering works:

Here’s how it works: First, various academics have strong moral impulses about something. For example, they perceive negative attitudes about obesity in society, and they want to stop people from making the obese feel bad about their condition. In other words, they convince themselves that the clinical concept of obesity (a medical term) is merely a story we tell ourselves about fat (a descriptive term); it’s not true or false—in this particular case, it’s a story that exists within a social power dynamic that unjustly ascribes authority to medical knowledge.

Second, academics who share these sentiments start a peer-reviewed periodical such as Fat Studies—an actual academic journal. They organize Fat Studies like every other academic journal, with a board of directors, a codified submission process, special editions with guest editors, a pool of credentialed “experts” to vet submissions, and so on. The journal’s founders, allies and collaborators then publish articles in Fat Studies and “grow” their journal. Soon, other academics with similar beliefs submit papers, which are accepted or rejected. Ideas and moral impulses go in, knowledge comes out. Voilà!

Eventually, after activist scholars petition university libraries to carry the journal, making it financially viable for a large publisher like Taylor & Francis, Fat Studies becomes established. Before long, there’s an extensive canon of academic work—ideas, prejudice, opinion and moral impulses—that has been laundered into “knowledge.”

They then have an answer when one asks the obvious question: “How could fat be just a narrative? There’s overwhelming medical evidence—A1Cs, the surge of type-2 diabetes, demonstrable risk factors—reliably indicating that excess fat is a health hazard. This has nothing to do with ‘stories we tell ourselves’ or ‘societal power structures,’ and instead directly corresponds to facts about the human body.”

In response, grievance scholars point to articles in the peer-reviewed journal Fat Studies: “Toward a Fat Pedagogy: A Study of Pedagogical Approaches Aimed at Challenging Obesity Discourse in Post-Secondary Education.” Not knowing any better, and seeing a veneer of scholarly rigor and scientific peer review, people reasonably assume that such articles are trustworthy sources of knowledge. (They assume this because it’s how the peer-reviewed process has traditionally worked: Academics try to disconfirm or falsify claims, as opposed to seeking support for them.) These articles tell us that obesity is but a narrative and there are other narratives, such as being healthy at every size, and there’s no reason to “privilege” one narrative over another.

Now that may well be a trivial example. But this sort of thing does happen. Many years ago Australia passed plain packaging laws for tobacco products. The popular view is that these laws have been remarkably successful in inhibiting tobacco consumption. That idea was laundered – first through the peer review process and then the courts.

Here is the introduction paper of the special edition of Tobacco Control that published the peer-reviewed literature declaring the policy to be a glorious success.

Plain packaging in Australia has been a casebook example of effective tobacco control—a policy measure driven by evidence, carefully designed and implemented, and now rigorously assessed. Further, it is set within the context of wider Australian tobacco control, reinforcing the most basic lesson learned over the last half century: action has to be strategic and comprehensive. There are no silver bullets. This issue demonstrates that plain packaging is beginning to deliver on its promise, and an important step forward, but it is still only part of the solution. Australia has learned and applied this lesson well and that is why it has one of the lowest smoking prevalence rates in the world.

Here is the judge in the UK plain packaging case:

More generally, the methodological criteria used to reject evidence on standardised packaging is inconsistent with the established peer-review standards used in scientific journals. Indeed, several of the reports challenge the integrity of the peer-review system and the credibility of some of the most respected health journals in the world.

The evidence appeared in peer reviewed literature and must be true. Astonishingly the judge also claimed:

I am not (remotely) in a position to decide who is right and who is wrong. I can, however, conclude from this that the process of peer review is an important one with serious implications for the issues arising in the present litigation.

Yes. Well.  It turns out that the judges at the World Trade Organisation were in a position to form an opinion as to the results of the research and not just the fact that they had been peer reviewed:

120. With this in mind, and based on the studies and expert reports before us and discussed above, the empirical evidence available to us regarding quitting-related outcomes and other distal outcomes, which is sometimes scarce, suggests that:
a. The impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on adult cigarette smokers’ quitting intention and quitting-related cognition reactions is limited and mixed.
b. The TPP measures and enlarged GHWs have had a statistically significant positive impact on avoidant behaviours, such as pack concealment, among adult cigarette smokers, while their impact on stubbing out and stopping smoking is much more limited and mixed.
c. Although the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs have statistically significantly increased calls to the Quitline, the observed impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on quit attempts is very limited and mixed.
d. The empirical evidence of the impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on adolescents’ quitting-related outcomes is limited. This evidence suggests that the impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on adolescents’ refraining from smoking cigarettes and thoughts about quitting is statistically not significant. No empirical evidence has been submitted to us on pack concealment among adolescent smokers.

By then, however, it didn’t matter – the idea that the peer-reviewed evidence supported the policy had taken root and is now widely accepted as being true.

So the problem is that extremist academics can generate a ‘peer-reviewed’ literature on any point that will become ‘knowledge’ and can undermine social and business practices.

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29 Responses to Idea laundering is a threat to business and civil society

  1. Rafe Champion

    “now” widely accepted…last line?
    Part of the problem is the sheer explosion of literature and the time required to read a paper in the critical way required to detect defective work. Sometimes the abstract says one thing, usually the politically correct thing, and the data say something else, the abstract is written to ensure that lazy referees wave it through.
    There is also a growing unwillingness to publish”negative” results, so error is left uncorrected.
    One of my colleagues referees for a family studies journal, only a couple of papers a year, that is as much as he can stand. The methods are dreadful and most of the papers he rejects have been accepted by the other referees.

  2. Biota

    and is not widely accepted as being true.

    now?

  3. Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    I think, in the second-last sentence, you meant to write, …’and is noW widely accepted’, not ‘noT’.

  4. Bruce of Newcastle

    Two comments.

    First that the problem with peer review is peers. So in the example of the Fat Studies journal, the people who would be approached will be Fat Studies academics, who have already self-selected themselves into that “field”. Instant echo chamber.

    We’ve seen this increasingly. The peer review model is complete garbage, and exists to add a gobbledegook sheen to ideology masquerading as science, so that the peasants aren’t alarmed and the funds keep flowing.

    And on this I get to my second point, which comes from Steve Milloy a few days ago:

    The No. 1 Problem in Science: Dishonesty (22 Nov)

    Here are some thoughts from an e-mail chain I was on today about reproducibility in science. Colleague #1 noted that, in some fields, as much as 80% of the published science was not reproducible.

    The problem in science is a pervasive lack of basic honesty among too many people. As it turns out, scientists lie just as much as everyone else.

    Unfortunately, a lot of bad apples have been able to surf the reputations and accomplishments of the greats in science.

    The rise in well funded government science, especially in the age of Climate Change™, means that dishonesty can now have a large payoff if the researcher can get away with it. Increasingly they can do so, especially if whole fields have their hands in the government cookie jar.

    And tobacco policy is another example of a cookie jar with vast amounts of money available to those who support the ideological line of whatever the prevailing fad currently is.

    I am sad that science, which has been my calling, is now so corrupted.

  5. Ivan Denisovich

    Theoretical physicists who say the multiverse exists set a dangerous precedent: science based on zero empirical evidence.

    There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or just plain ordinary bullshit, opening the door to all manner of metaphysics masquerading as science. This is ‘post-empirical’ science, where truth no longer matters, and it is potentially very dangerous.

    RTWT

    https://aeon.co/essays/post-empirical-science-is-an-oxymoron-and-it-is-dangerous

  6. Bruce

    Global gaslighting.

    In related matters:https:

    //www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVHLh218FJo

  7. stackja

    Health fund premiums could be slashed by $400 a year under radical policy changes that would see patients get a single bill combining hospital and doctors costs with no out-of-pocket expenses.

    Former health department chief Stephen Duckett has found greedy doctors, inefficient private hospitals and the provision of unnecessary operations are adding $2 billion a year to health insurance costs.

    He has proposed a radical overhaul within the next two years that would see the independent Hospital Pricing Authority that sets prices for public hospital procedures do the same for private hospitals.

    Doctor Duckett made the findings in his report Saving Private Health which was commissioned by the Grattan Institute, published on Monday night.

    Patients undergoing surgery would no longer receive multiple bills from specialists, anaesthetists, assistant surgeons, pathologists and for medicine and hospital charges under the proposed changes.

    Peer reviewed?

  8. stackja

    Bruce
    #3245263, posted on November 26, 2019 at 11:04 am
    Global gaslighting.

    linky

  9. Bruce of Newcastle

    Former health department chief Stephen Duckett has found greedy doctors, inefficient private hospitals and the provision of unnecessary operations are adding $2 billion a year to health insurance costs.

    Of course he would say that.

    I Left England Because of Socialized Medicine. My Life Depended on It. (25 Nov)

    Comments:
    He has a form of epilepsy that leaves most people unable to function. One of the two percent that is more fortunate, he needs readily available medical care to stay alive. He went to England for a job, found he would have to wait nine months to see a neurologist, and returned to the U.S. As he points out, people come from all over the world to receive care here that they cannot receive in their own countries.

    The lowest common denominator in health is zero, which is what people get in the Venezuelan government health service.

  10. Snoopy

    Ta dah!

    Report finds women are ignored by medical research

  11. C.L.

    Great post.
    “Ideas laundering” is everywhere – most especially in climate “science.”

    … science based on zero empirical evidence.

    Hawking made a career (and a best-selling coffee table book) out of that.

  12. Sinclair Davidson

    Typo fixed. Thank you.

  13. BorisG

    Not so fast. if I want to find out whether some idea is estasblihed, I don’t just look at peer reviewed evidence, I look for evidence in long established and reputable journals. If I find articles only in fat science then I am highly suspicious. I need articles in the Lancet etc. in physics it must be in Physical Review, etc.

    Of course even that is not a guarantee for truth but the process has much more integrity.

  14. Snoopy

    The Lancet?

    Urgent action is needed to protect human health from the increasing effects of climate change

    Please.

  15. BorisG

    I know. But this is a different problem.

  16. BorisG

    What I mean is that even publications in reputable journals may be wrong but this is caused by a different mechanism.

  17. RobK

    To some extent the “science “ gets buried in complexity. Data gathering, handling and communication is cheap and fast . The processing of data is a specialised field that even the experts can mull over. (Consider https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032022-600-exclusive-grave-doubts-over-ligos-discovery-of-gravitational-waves/amp/)
    With so much data, the filtering is a big issue, especially when humans almost seem to have an innate Sense to see patterns where none exists. Coupled with big science, big politics, media hype(especially when “a study found “ usually means a weak correlation was found) and the need for multi disciplinary fields of expertise, it is difficult to deliver ground breaking stuff at every turn. A lot of time and effort goes into just finding likely prospects, most of which will be dead ends. At the forefront of every field, the easy stuff has been done already. Couple this with the trend away from pure science for science’s sake and a lot of churn develops. Also, without empirical evidence many scientists are speculating, hoping, assuming, they are as clever as they think they are.

  18. pbw

    Boris,

    What I mean is that even publications in reputable journals may be wrong but this is caused by a different mechanism.

    Yes: take over an existing publication, stack the “reviewers,” and turn into The Lancet, featuring Fat Studies, or some such. The mechanism may be different, but the idea laundering is the same.

    Physical Review? See Ivan’s post and link (in which Popper gets a mention).

  19. I_am_not_a_robot

    The Woozle effect, “also known as evidence by citation, or a woozle, occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups, and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence, and non-facts become urban myths and factoids …”.

  20. Art Vandelay

    Not knowing any better, and seeing a veneer of scholarly rigor and scientific peer review, people reasonably assume that such articles are trustworthy sources of knowledge. (They assume this because it’s how the peer-reviewed process has traditionally worked: Academics try to disconfirm or falsify claims, as opposed to seeking support for them.)

    Did peer review ever work? Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

    The replication crisis is not only hitting medical science but also other disciplines such as psychology and economics.

    When governments fund research, we end up with mediocre research.

  21. This is ‘post-empirical’ science, where truth no longer matters, and it is potentially very dangerous.

    I thought that we have already arrived at this point.

    I seem to be gasping almost every day at some espoused bullshit that defies common sense, let alone science.

  22. John A

    Stackja quoted:

    He has proposed a radical overhaul within the next two years that would see the independent Hospital Pricing Authority that sets prices for public hospital procedures do the same for private hospitals.

    So he proposes more price controls… what could go wrong?

  23. mundi

    This reminds me of the physics professor who did that paper about females in physics.

    He was rejected, not because of any fact that was wrong, but because it was deemd out of his realm. He was a physicists, not a profressor in gender studies. Thus his method of facts and statistics and logic were not applicable to field.

    So far this sort of ‘fake’ science is only impacting things politically…. but you can imagine how bad it will become when it starts to impact actual health and engineering.

    As an engineer I am already starting to see absurd rubbish, such as claiming you can’t compare designs based on things like… if they work, design must be treated ‘equal’ because each designer is of different ability etc. etc. and therefore inherently there design is as ‘good’ as anyone elses.

  24. mundi

    The simple rule I follow is this: Never trust any field of science that doesn’t have engineers.

    If it doesn’t have engineers using the science, then the science isn’t being put to practical use, and the science is most likely complete and utter BS (see: almost all ‘social science’).

  25. nb

    My rule of thumb for humanities papers is 10% have some recognisable connection to their purported object of study. Within that 10% there may be some papers that are quite penetrating and interesting. For example, for a paper on David Hume, in only 10% will you find a presentation of Hume’s ideas that resembles his actual writings. Maybe 10% of that 10% (1 or 2% of the total pool) have something interesting to say. In law, I have read plenty of papers where the interpretation of legislation or case law is simply not available from the legislation or case law. For one particular legal textbook the major premise of the book, and the course taught from the book, was contradicted in one paragraph in the book – a paragraph that sought to define the topic. I pointed this out to one of the two authors of the book. That person brushed my observation aside saying that bit was written by the other author.

  26. That person brushed my observation aside saying that bit was written by the other author.

    Having less authors, is Blackshield & Williams Constitutional Law more reliable than Hank’s Constitutional Law?

  27. Anthony

    @ Boris.

    Lancet did also publish Andrew Wakefield and the bogus MMR study back in 1999. They did retract it – thought it took them 12 years. So, I would say something published in the Lancet may more likely be true than an obscure journal – given sufficient time.

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