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The National Institutes of Health have shut down a controversial study of how moderate drinking promotes good health after a task force found severe ethical and scientific lapses in the study’s planning and execution.

Credibility for sale.

The NYTimes reported that officials of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism solicited $67 million from leaders of the U.S.’s $350 billion wine, beer and spirits industry by “strongly suggesting the study’s results would endorse moderate drinking as healthy.”

This was more than a temporary ethical lapse.

Officials deliberately designed the study to minimize the likelihood of finding any problems. The Washington Post said the study was inescapably compromised. Reuters said the study’s funding undermined the integrity of the research process. Dr. Michael Siegel, of Boston University’s School of Public Health, said the study “is not public health research – it’s marketing.”

Does this ring any bells?

Historians will recall the very same thing happening in the tobacco industry. When it was becoming apparent that smoking was a severe health risk, tobacco companies adopted a five-point strategy. Their research goals were to:

  1. Fund research that supports the sponsor’s position.
  2. Design the research to find in favor of the sponsor’s position.
  3. Hide findings that don’t support the sponsor’s position.
  4. Distort findings to maximize the sponsor’s position.
  5. Present our version of what the data say directly to decision-makers.

If real scientists compromise ethics, what about the gatekeepers in charge of so much corporate research, where there are no watchdogs, transparency advocates, referees, or nosy reporters?

You might’ve guessed.

In business, as in science and government, gatekeepers and study sponsors manipulate study designs to guarantee favored outcomes. Market research studies too often stack the deck by asking leading questions of cherry-picked consumers so the ‘answers’ come out the way sponsors want them to. And when findings don’t support the sponsors’ positions, gatekeepers distort some and hide the rest.

Gatekeepers in business, science and government are adept at using supposedly scientific inquiry to sell pre-determined outcomes as genuine when it’s anything but.

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