U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously described obscenity in 1964 by stating, “I know it when I see it.” If only the same could be said of industry-funded studies.
It can be challenging for the average consumer to discern whether a study plastered across the news was funded by corporate interests, and whether the science is trustworthy, regardless of who paid for it. The challenge is compounded by a hollowed-out news media that often lacks the time and resources to investigate every claim and social media post that runs light on details.
Fortunately, you don’t need to spend hours wading through voluminous and highly technical scientific literature for clues. Marion Nestle, one of the nation’s foremost specialists on food industry studies, told Tarbell via email that it’s best to start with a simple question: Does the conclusion make sense?
“If it does, it’s probably right,” wrote Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, at New York University. “If the conclusion is hyped as a breakthrough, or as everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong, skepticism is greatly in order.”
In 2011, a nutrition study featured this stunning conclusion: Kids who eat candy weigh less than their counterparts. The sponsor, not surprisingly, was the National Confections Association, which counts Hershey’s and other major candy manufacturers as members. But even without knowing who paid for the research, the study wouldn’t pass Nestle’s gut check.
Look for these five telltale signs to spot industry research and decide whether you can trust it:
- No Disclosure: When critical details are missing or buried, such as who sponsored the research, be on guard. This is a sure sign that a report was funded by a company or industry that’s trying to hide or minimize its role.
- Effusive Praise: Gushing praise by companies and industry trade organizations or their supporters, which can include front groups, could indicate research was designed to serve a corporate agenda.
- Outrageous Claims: Be skeptical about any conclusions that seem to defy logic—or appear intended mostly to boost the image and market share of a particular product or company.
- External variables: Any research should always be viewed in a wider context. Perhaps there’s a motivating factor, such as an upcoming referendum that could tax or ban a product, a company recall, or impending regulation in Washington.
- Lack of Peer Review: The peer-review process involves evaluation of scholarly work by specialists in the same field. The most reputable scientific journals only accept peer-reviewed articles for publication. But as highlighted by this cautionary Center for Public Integrity article, peer review doesn’t always guarantee scientific rigor.
Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, emphasizes that no study is the final word on any subject. “You should recognize that the findings of one study do not necessarily mean that that’s the general consensus of the scientific community.”
“Part of the scientific process is the accumulation of science and understanding” that creates a wide body of research on a topic, she explained.
For a broader perspective, search for news about a report’s sponsor, examine the conflict-of-interest policy of the journal that published it and read about other studies on the same topic.
If research conducted by independent parties raises concerns about a product cast in a more favorable light by a study of questionable origin, it’s a safe guess that the latter was industry sponsored.