Spotting the occult Conflict of Interest

Orac / David Gorski has a post about Conflicts of Interest and motivated reasoning.

He points out that COIs (it really should be CsOI, but I’ll go with COIs for simplicity) are not just financial, they’re also ideological and personal (and there are doubtless other kinds he didn’t enumerate).

That’s why I’ve become very insistent that we, as skeptics, scientists, and physicians, need to be totally up front about our conflicts of interest, be they financial, ideological, or personal. One reason, of course, is that those who—shall we say?—don’t share our dedication to rationality, science, and critical thinking will be very quick to point them out if we don’t do so first, but that’s not the most important reason. The most important reason is to be better skeptics. We need to honestly admit and recognize anything that might compromise our objectivity or lead us to conclusions that are not the ones best supported by science and the evidence. Once we know our own skeptical weaknesses in the form of COIs, we can work on trying to mitigate them. In many ways, financial COIs are the easiest to deal with, because they’re far more straightforward. When one has a personal experience that informs one’s views on a topic or has a strong ideological commitment to a point of view, it’s often hard to tell where skepticism devolves into motivated reasoning.

True. Good point. I try to do that to some extent, but probably not enough. One reason for the not enough is just that it would get tediously repetitive except for first-time readers…but other reasons are perhaps also in play. Why don’t I just take this opportunity to spell out some of my Interests.

One is feminism. Duh. That’s obvious, and it’s obvious that lots of people think feminism is not so much an Interest as a Guaranteed Warper of Rational Thought.

It could be, under certain conditions. There are things I would not like to see Firmly Established By Science, such as the permanent inherent global inferiority of the female brain…or, for that matter, the [insert any adjective here] brain. But personally, self-interestedly, Conflict of Interestedly, I would not like to see that in the case of the female brain. I would be threatened by that.

So that’s one.

Others are liberalism (in the sense of a rights-orientation), universalism, secularism, atheism.

But Gorski also includes personal. Right. There are some of those. There are people whose participation can turn me right off a discussion, people who have a long and rich history of calling me (and, often, friends of mine) nasty names. There are a lot of them. I can’t have any kind of calm, reasoned discussion with them. It just isn’t possible. That’s a COI.

Fortunately most of them are just pseudonymous people on Twitter and in blog comments. Fortunately most of them are not likely to cross paths with me except on Twitter or in blog comments. But there are a few, and that’s a COI.


  1. suttkus says

    I know that Orac’s real name is pretty widely spoiled, but he is still demarcating his pseudonymous and real-name material, and I don’t think you should contribute to the crossover. Until he chooses to give up on the demarcation, it should be respected.

  2. Silentbob says

    @ 1 suttkus

    In the post under discussion Orac links to “something I wrote” with the byline David Gorski.

  3. latsot says

    Skepticism has always been (partly) about recognising our own bias and we all have varying degrees of success at that. We have tools to help us, but they are easy to misuse, as the events of the last few years have taught us. I suspect that understanding our bias helps in identifying conflicts of interest and is the more fundamental skill.

    But identifying conflicts of interest is also important because they can reveal things like how much we’re prepared to compromise on principles – in both directions of an argument – and can result in apparent discrepancies between our own various arguments. If we don’t know how to reconcile or at least justify those discrepancies, then we’re probably not being very skeptical and we need to address our bias and our interests.

    They are not always easy to tell apart. I can certainly be biased toward an interest and I think I can be interested in a bias. These seem to mean different things. The former is an ideological attraction to a position and the latter is an ideological attraction to arguments supporting a position. Your definitions may vary, of course, but perhaps it’s relevant when it comes to conflict. For example, it’s sometimes easy to compromise a bias to pursue an interest. That’s something we can quite easily recognise. But it might be harder to recognise when we compromise an interest because of bias.

    Or something. I’m kind of rambling at this point.

  4. says

    Inferiority of the female brain? That’s putting the cart before the horse on a ship that’s already sailed. There’s been plenty of research investigating the notion that women are less mentally capable than men, and it’s all shown that’s not true. It’s not even a legitimate question anymore, is it? It’s not irrational feminism that makes you want to suppress the evidence; all that evidence is one of the reasons that feminism is rational.

  5. says

    No problem. I did think about it while typing, and decided he’s so out in so many places that it would just be confusing to call him Orac (and confusing in another way to omit Orac).

  6. HappyNat says

    Reading the comments of Orac’s post and there is a MRA libretarian (“sexual harassment is subjective”), Edward Gemmer (“the post misses the mark”), and everyone’s favorite TAM presenter Sara (“there weren’t even charges”). sheesh and I had forgotten why I stopped reading comments of Skeptic(TM) articles.

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