Endocrine science: Will the real “manufacturers of doubt” please stand up?

Let’s Stop the Manipulation of Science,” reads the title to an op-ed recently published in the popular French newspaper, Le Monde. It sounds like an honest cause, but are the authors being disingenuous with their call to action?

The scientists who co-signed the piece make a bold accusation – that “scientific evidence has been willfully distorted by individuals denying the science and actors sponsored by industry interests creating the false impression of a controversy.” The authors specifically reference the debate surrounding potential health and environmental effects of endocrine active and endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Call it an accident, an exercise in poor judgment, or just plain ironic, but – by blaming others for “manipulating the science,” the authors may actually be pointing the finger at themselves.

As epidemiologist Dr. Greg Bond writes in a point-counterpoint blog post on Science 2.0, many of the claims the scientists make in the piece are either patently false or cannot be supported by the available evidence.

Dr. Bond specifically picks apart at least seven allegations from the Le Monde piece – too many to repeat here, so I suggest checking them out for yourself.

In spite of the woeful inaccuracies Bond cites, the authors make their accusations with incredible vigor and self-confidence. They believe they must be right – and yet, they’re out in left field. How can this be?

“Naïve realism”

Social psychology offers one theory – naïve realism, or the “tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased.”

Sounds an awful lot like those accusatory scientists, doesn’t it?

Indeed, there’s a very strong possibility that at least some of the scientists who co-authored the Le Monde piece are naïve to their own subjectivity. They may:

  • Believe that they see the world objectively and without bias;
  • Expect that others will come to the same conclusions, so long as they are exposed to the same information and interpret it in a rational manner;
  • Assume that others who do not share the same views must be ignorant, irrational, or biased.

Some in the scientific community actually have a name for this phenomenon: “white hat bias.”

“White hat bias”

White hat bias, according to public health researchers David Allison and Mark Cope, is “bias leading to distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends.”

If it’s possible that sanctimony can hijack the science, then many of the authors who co-signed the Le Monde op-ed may not even realize they are victims of their own bias.

Of course, there’s an even darker possibility – that the authors knowingly exaggerate the strength of the evidence, or intentionally fail to report any caveats or limitations inherent in their work – but we believe that judgment is best left to the individual reader.

When finger pointing is a clear tell

When it comes to very legitimate debates surrounding health science, especially with regard to chemicals and the endocrine system, casting the blame on others for “manufacturing a debate” is hardly ever the constructive thing to do. In the case of the Le Monde authors, it may actually be self-defeating.

First, finger pointing undermines scientific integrity. The authors should instead continue to let the science speak for itself, even if it does not support their preferred conclusions.

Second, along similar lines, by perpetually casting the blame just about anyone but themselves, the authors give the impression that the science about which they argue indeed cannot support their own conclusions, thus shooting themselves in the foot.

Third, by continuing to invoke the “precautionary principle” for virtually any chemical safety claim they can’t prove, the Le Monde authors actually weaken and undermine the very principle which they cite. The precautionary principle was not designed as safety net for scientists who are unable to support their claims through actual science, yet many continue to use it that way.

Finally, blaming others indirectly hints to the authors’ own bias and ulterior motives. As the saying goes, every time you point a finger at someone else, remember, there are three remaining fingers pointing back at you.

So, will the real “manufacturers of doubt” please stand up?

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