Conflicts of Interest

The report on Jon Gruber’s (un)disclosed conflict of interest has been making the rounds.  I’ve been talking about it with a number of people all day, and there are lots of opinions on it out there.

I like Megan McArdle’s take on it best:

To be clear, I’m sure that Jonathan Gruber is in favor of passing this health care bill, and thinks it will do a lot of genuine good.  I don’t think that funding automatically discredits the message; his work should stand on its own merits.  But journalists and academics are granted a presumption of independence that is not given to most other professions, and that gives them a special duty to make it clear whenever there is a relationship that people might reasonably think has affected their views.  Lefties were rightly furious when journalists turned out to have been taking money from the Bush administration, and I’m glad to see that at least some of them are holding Obama to the same standard.

I don’t know Jonathan Gruber, but I respect his work.  I also don’t doubt he stands behind it.  I also think that some are using this story more for short-term political gain than because they believe Gruber was influenced.

But the reason we demand declarations of conflict of interest is that they can’t be optional.  We are always the worst at judging the importance of our own disclosures, because we always believe we aren’t affected.  Mandatory reporting makes sure that (1) potential biases are clear to those evaluating our work and (2) that we are forced to recognize that those biases, even subconsciously, may be influencing our work.

I’d go further than Megan.  I think that academics are (and perhaps should be) granted the most credence in these types of debate.  In order to maintain that, we need to err far to the side of disclosure or we risk skepticism about our work.  It’s already hard enough to maintain that level of credibility.  Stories like this make it harder.

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