Peter Dorman, who writes one of my favorite economics blogs, raises two problems with Carl Zimmer’s recent NYT article about neonicotinoid pesticides and their possible link to colony collapse disorder (‘CCD’). First, Dorman states:
There followed comments from four of these outside experts. One is from the main producer of neonicotinoids; he thinks the studies are flawed. Another is from the US Department of Agriculture, who thinks the studies shift the weight of research against the pesticide. The other two, both from academia, were evenly balanced, one finding the studies persuasive, the other not.
In other words, the article is a he-said, she-said about pesticides and colony collapse, which relieves the author from having to express his own judgment.
…The only alternative is to write stories that explain, in terms that the public can understand, what the substantive issues are in scholarly disputes, and why some experts go one way and others go another…heir job is not to take sides but to explain, as clearly as possible, what the root basis of the disagreement is, so that readers can understand the points on which the argument turns.
While I agree that science writers should help evaluate claims, this is a little unfair. These are new studies, and very few in number. We have learned the hard way in the human medical literature–and this should be thought of as ‘bee medical literature’–that early studies often do not pan out, especially when the underlying biology is multifactorial and complex. The other problem is that, based on the entomologists that I follow, the field really hasn’t had time to digest these studies. In other words, the experts aren’t certain. Rub these two things together and I don’t see how Zimmer could have done differently.
That being said, I think Dorman is dead on with this point about funding–something we have also experience with human medical research:
Worse, there is no indication whether either or both of the academics have received funding from pesticide manufacturers. Research in entomology and ecotoxicity is expensive, and much of it is funded by industry. Being on the receiving end of pesticide dollars does not invalidate a scholar’s argument, but it is certainly relevant information for nonspecialists who want to know who to believe.
This is an interesting topic for me, because economics has the same problem: a lot of academic, not to mention think tank, economic researchers are funded by business interests with a stake in what their research shows. They present their views to the general public, but rarely with a disclosure of their own interests: the Inside Job problem.
I agree completely, since we know in the medical literature funding source has influenced findings (the most obvious being the effects of smoking). Identifying sources of funding should be standard/ I’ve argued elsewhere that the myriad effects of how science is funded are incredibly neglected by science journalism, and the CCD/neonicotinoid studies provide a potential example of funding’s importance.