You May Be Biased — But That Doesn't Make You Wrong
One contention in the world of politics and academia alike is that money can have a big affect on what people say and do. Specifically, the idea is that money buys votes, money buys influence, and that research grants similarly buy ideological bias in the academic community.
You’ve surely seen the kinds of allegations. Pro-abortion research is assumed to be biased because it's funded by Planned Parenthood and anti-gun-control research is biased because it's funded by the NRA. It's assumed who funds climate science determines whether reports report impending doom or "denialism."
And then there's the fact large amounts of research on monetary policy is funded by central banks. Not surprisingly, many therefore argue: central bankers splashing out money on research would never fund research hostile to themselves or to the state. Consequently, many also assume most economists’ positive perception of the Fed must be supported by research money.1
We can probably find countless more examples in even more politically contentious areas: the sugar industry financing research downplaying sugar’s role in the obesity epidemic ; the tobacco industry funding cancer research ; Big Oil funding “climate science deniers” or Big Pharma funding healthcare research and Pentagon funding military research labs . The common denominator is the extent to which ideological leanings of funding bodies translate into the result of the researcher, casting serious doubt on the accuracy of the result.
Why Funding Doesn't Determine the Value of an Argument
While who-funds-what may be important to determining if research dollars are being well spent, this ultimately doesn't tell us anything about the actual quality of an argument or its related research. Yes, the researchers may be biased, but that doesn't prove the research is no good.
To determine that, we have to look to the arguments themselves.
After all, even Mises, half a century ago, strongly ridiculed what he called “The Bias Doctrine”:
It does not in the least detract from the soundness and correctness of a theory if the psychological forces that prompted its author are disclosed. The motives that guided the thinker are immaterial to appreciating his achievement ( Theory and History , p. 27)
Indeed, Mises pointed out that “all that counts is whether a doctrine is sound or unsound” (p. 27) and that consequently, “it is immaterial what kinds of motives inspired its author” (p. 28). As often is the case with Mises, he takes apart a fallacious argument and replaces it with the correct logical conclusion. Even if we managed to establish the psychological and pecuniary biases supporting an economist’s erroneous research, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other unless we engage with the actual argument:
Granted that he was biased. But then we must realize that his alleged bias produced theorems which successfully withstood all objections. Reference to a thinker's bias is no substitute for a refutation of his doctrines by tenable arguments. (p. 28)
Moreover, the very objection that some arguments must be mistaken because their proponent is funded by a particular interest group is itself unscientific. Instead of examining the merits of the case – or the historical likelihood that funding body ideology has impacted past research outcomes – you are examining often unobservable readings in the psychological make-up of the researcher doing the research. In her recent book Thinking In Bets, the former Poker champion Annie Duke outlines the merits of betting in minimizing our preconceived notions and motivated reasoning in favor or accuracy in outcomes:
acceptance or rejection of an idea must not ‘depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist’ … [D]on’t disparage or ignore an idea just because you don’t like who or where it came from. When we have a negative opinion about the person delivering the message, we close our minds to what they are saying and miss a lot of learning opportunities because of it. Likewise, when we have a positive opinion of the messenger, we tend to accept the message without much vetting. Both are bad. (pp. 160-161)
People like Robin Hanson, Nathan Silver , Nassim Taleb and Philip Tetlock are well-known for offering strategies to combat confirmation bias and motivated reasoning – most interestingly, perhaps, putting money on the line seems to mitigate most people’s tendency to stick with beliefs contrary to facts .
Sure, there might be selection issues where the kinds of people that go into politics or gravitate towards (leading) positions in central banks are systematically of a certain persuasion – but to conclude from this that funding generated their bias, and that consequently we can pay no mind to their argument is definitely premature. Instead, we ought to double down and investigate their arguments further – reference to bias of one kind or another is emphatically “no substitute for a refutation of his doctrines by tenable arguments”.
This is not to say that funding organizations never steered the research in an unscientific matter. They might have. But possibility does not prove guilt – and is never more than a reason for further investigation. Whoever invokes the Bought-And-Paid-For objection must, regardless of what they find, engage with the actual argument and the basis of their evidence.
Just like Mises laid out half-a-century ago, accusing a researcher’s funding body for ideological bias does not render his evidence void.
- 1. A funding-related issue that came up briefly last year was the left-wing objection to the economics department at George Mason University. Because they receive Koch Brothers funding, there must be something mischievous or blatantly incorrect in their mostly pro-market and conservative-leaning research. The argument was portrayed all over Slate , the New York Times and the Washington Post in May last year: money buys research of a particular ideological brand, and the truthfulness of any research result that comes out of GMU must be ideologically tainted and may therefore be discounted.