(originally posted 1.1.2002)
At a time when we are quite aware of the need for and value of transparency in the reporting of the activities of corporations (thanks most recently to the Enron affair), we could quite usefully extend this transparency metaphor to other parts of day-to-day life. The print press, TV, radio, and internet are filled with opinions and advice from all sorts of people. Many of these pass for expert status just based on affiliation with universities, institutes, and think tanks.
Increasingly we must ask ourselves, “whose opinion is this?” Who is being served by the expertise?
Although many in the academic and chic cultural world (not to mention the various right-wing types in political and religious quarters) may think that relativism is the creation of post-WWII French philosophy, most of the rest of the world knows full well that “truth” is in fact relative, that is, relative to who is paying. No surprise, the “experts” know this too, and regularly seek to hide or obscure who is paying. Now, even the pinnacle of prestige in the medical world, The New England Journal of Medicine, has had to strengthen its guidelines that seek to separate research performed at arms length from the pharmaceutical/medical industrial complex from that more directly controlled.
A Step Towards a Solution
What can we do to provide a substantial increase in the transparency of our information sources while keeping things simple?
We should begin to demand that every expert, commentator, think tank institute, or university laboratory reveal the sources of 80% of the funds supporting its research/organizational activities. In the vast majority of case the list of sources will not exceed three or four. This protocol will provide a revealing base of background information without substantial burdens.
Although the protocol proposed here will increase the transparency of our sources of information, it will not relieve us of the work of making sense out of the data and theories presented in any given situation. Just because a given piece of research is funded by “bad people” does not mean that the data is not meaningful and the analysis correct.