Chief Science Correspondent
I came across a post in my Facebook feed today with the title, "Take Identical Twins, Give One of Them Gum...And Watch What Happens Next." I find twin studies fascinating and, seeing as I didn't have much else to do at the moment, I clicked on the link.
I proceeded to sit through a 2.5 minute video called "Almost Identical: An Experiment by Beldent." A quick Google search told me that "Beldent" is an alternative name for Trident gum in a select number of countries.
A gum company sponsoring a study on the effects of gum chewing? Sounds reasonable.
The twins were made up to look identical in every way except for one - one twin was chewing gum, while the other was not. The video said 75 percent of the responses found that the chewer was viewed more positively than the non-chewer, and was therefore thought to be more social and friendly.
The point of the study was to remove the "social stigma" of chewing gum.
Sure. That doesn't sound shady at all.
There were a number of issues with this "study" already, including no evidence of a control group and the fact that the gum-chewing twin was always seated on the left side. However, the biggest problem by far in this experiment was that it was sponsored by a gum company. Conveniently, the results showed that gum chewing makes you look more attractive, warm and outgoing. Basically, it's just a commercial. A commercial posing as a science experiment.
Does this matter? Not really. at least in this case. Trident (or Beldent) is just trying to use a slightly creative method to make a greater profit for selling their product. It's pretty obvious that this is just advertising; it's like when Dove sets up "experiments" for their Real Beauty campaign. We all know it's a commercial and that these "real life situations" are likely scripted, the results pre-determined or at least incredibly skewed.
But the Beldent commercial is indicative of a similar, yet less transparent, issue within the scientific company today - when companies with a vested interest fund or conduct experiments on their own products.
Funding for science research generally stems from a variety of sources, often a mix of government agencies and private companies. To receive money for a project, researchers must submit a grant proposal in which they outline the large-scale benefit of their results.
In an essay, Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky outlines a series of evidence that have produced the term "funding effect," in which a scientist's funding sources tend to dictate the project's results. Are the companies directly placing pressure on the researchers to promote their products? Or do the scientists tend to interpret the results a certain way without realizing it?
It's likely a mix of both, although the studies have pointed more strongly towards the latter.
For instance, a number of studies have suggested that smoking decreases the risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease. However, it turns out all of these studies were funded by tobacco companies. Actually, studies that were not funded by tobacco companies reported a two-fold higher risk of developing the disease.
Funding bias has also been shown to be a major issue in pharmaceutical testing, with results often working in favor of the sponsor's product. A 2006 review found that drug studies funded by the products' creators yield favorable results 78 percent of the time. Conversely, studies on drugs funded by the product's competitors tend yield favorable results only 28 prevent of the time.
The problem with funding bias is that it is generally very difficult to prove, and by the time these correlations are noted it is often too late.
With the shortage of science funding, it is impractical to argue that we should eliminate biased sources completely. However, it is clear that the current system is not working.
One possible solution is that studies funded by vested sources be monitored by an objective party. This reviewer could also analyze the results, with no prior knowledge of the original funding source. Additionally, once the study is published, the authors should make it their funding sources obvious to the outside observer. Although this information is generally easy to find within peer-reviewed journals, it is often eliminated when reported on by the media.
Funding bias will likely always be an unavoidable facet of scientific research, but it is clear we need to rethink our methods is combatting it. The ultimate goal of science is to produce information to add to previous knowledge and to benefit humankind - not to promote the interests of large businesses.