Have Corporations Captured Social Science Research through Donations?Roundup
tags: corporations, research, social sciences
Nina Strohminger is a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Olúfémi Táíwò is an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of Reconsidering Reparations and Elite Capture.
Most of us have been taught to think of scientific bias as a distortion of scientific results. As long as we avoid misinformation, fake news, and false conclusions, the thinking goes, the science is unbiased. But the deeper problem of bias involves the questions science pursues in the first place. Scientific questions are infinite, but the resources required to test them — time, effort, money, talent — are decidedly finite. This selection stage is where the battle over whether science will serve the public good or private profit is won and lost. So long as researchers fail to set their agendas based on evidence about how their research fits into larger social and political dynamics, corporations will continue to do it for them.
Corporations have a long history of influencing the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge — often without clearly biasing the results of the studies. In the 1970s and 1980s, R.J. Reynolds, a major tobacco company, funded research at elite institutions like Harvard and Yale Universities to determine the causes of cancer and other degenerative diseases. The studies examined the impact of a wide array of factors, including environmental toxins, genetics, stress, and personality type. R.J. Reynolds invested more than $45 million in this research.
If you were a scientist on the receiving end of this lavish funding, you might be forgiven for seeing it as an unmitigated good. After all, it would accelerate scientific discovery, and could be used to save lives. But by diverting research onto alternative causes of cancer, the tobacco industry was slyly reorienting the scientific debate away from the threats of smoking. This act of corporate prestidigitation distracted scientists from the most effective health interventions and allowed a company peddling a deadly product to skirt public accountability.
Once you know to look for it, this kind of bias is hiding everywhere in plain sight. Take, for instance, the recent infatuation in the social sciences with “nudges.” These are interventions that aim to change behavior with a light touch (e.g., a text message), often deployed with weighty public-policy ends in mind, such as reducing waste or debt. Nudges became popular because they are simple and cheap. They have also received tremendous support from corporations and other institutions, in terms of funding, strategic programs, and public-relations campaigns, which have further increased the research devoted to exploring these interventions.
Unfortunately, they are not terribly effective. More social scientists are beginning to wonder exactly how productive this line of work has been, and whose interests it has really served. A new paper by behavioral scientists Nick Chater and George Loewenstein argues that this focus on individual-level interventions has distracted from more-serious study of systemic change. A framing focused on small, individual-level decisions, they suggest, has been encouraged and developed by corporations looking to shut down discussions of deeper structural problems.
One of Chater and Loewenstein’s core examples is the so-called carbon footprint calculator, introduced by BP in 2002 as part of the company’s experimental rebranding (Beyond Petroleum). This calculator allowed consumers to measure their personal carbon emissions. It also, conveniently, reframed the climate problem as one determined by individual responsibility (e.g., biking to work instead of driving), rather than one that can be resolved only through large-scale policy change (e.g., regulating industrial carbon emissions). Chater and Loewenstein themselves acted as consultants and advisers on work dedicated to “nudging” consumers into smaller carbon footprints. Their change of heart reflects their honest recognition that the framing supplied by the petroleum industry misdirected scientists’ focus to research questions targeting consumers, rather than the real source of climate change — industrial carbon output.