StATS: Taking charges of conflicting interest too far (June 4, 2005).

You should always be aware of potential conflicts of interest. Sometimes researchers allow a financial incentive to influence their research and end up skewing  the data to achieve a particular outcome.

Does having a commercial interest in the results of a drug trial cause a problem for the people running the trial? If it does, then much of the research that we rely on could be flawed. A recent article in the British Medical Journal raises some serious concerns (Jurendini 2004).

More uncertain is the belief that researchers working in an area will try to obtain findings that encourage greater research funding in the area they work in. This might manifest itself in a tendency to exaggerate the importance of a particular disease and to overstate the number of people affected. One author commented that having an NIH grant is the biggest conflict of interest of all.

While it seems intuitive that such a conflict would exist, I have seen no empirical evidence to support this. In fact, sometimes this charge is leveled by people who have an opposite interest and conflict with the research. So, for example, a common charge is that EPA preferentially funds research that exaggerates environmental hazards and the researchers funded by EPA try to deliver this type of finding. Often this sort of charge is a "red herring" by opponents of environmental regulation intended to sow doubt and confusion.

Another "red herring" was claims about a financial conflict of interest with the James Randi prize. James Randi, through the James Randi Education Foundation, has offered a million dollar prize

"to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event." -- www.randi.org/research

This generous offer includes claims for:

"Dowsing. ESP. Precognition. Remote Viewing. Communicating with the Dead and/or 'Channeling'. Violations of Newton's Laws of Motion (Perpetual Motion Devices). Homeopathy. Chiropractic Healing (beyond back/joint problems). Faith Healing. Psychic Surgery. Astrology. Therapeutic Touch (aka 'TT'). Qi Gong. Psychokinesis (aka 'PK'). The Existence of Ghosts. Precognition & Prophecy. Levitation. Physiognomy. Psychometry. Pyramid Power. Reflexology. Acupuncture. Applied Kinesiology (aka "AK"). Clairvoyance. The Existence of Auras. Graphology. Numerology. Palmistry. Phrenology." -- www.randi.org/research/faq.html

Notice the wide range of alternative medicine practices included in this list. The presence of this challenge allows skeptics of alternative medicine to ask proponents why they have not applied for this prize. It seems like a reasonable question to me, but at least one proponent has offered a conflict of interest charge against James Randi.

The idea of letting a former illusionist with a substantial financial stake in a negative result supervise a "double-blind" experiment is perhaps questionable. -- www.weirdtech.com/sci/expe.html

For someone to willing risk the loss of a million dollars shows the exact opposite to me. It was a response to a challenge that James Randi needed to put his money where his mouth is. The fact that he wants to supervise the results of the test rather than cede control to a "neutral" party is just a sign of reasonable prudence.

Further reading:

This page was written by Steve Simon while working at Children's Mercy Hospital. Although I do not hold the copyright for this material, I am reproducing it here as a service, as it is no longer available on the Children's Mercy Hospital website. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Conflict of interest.