Fracking, conflicts of interest and adverse inferences

Being reasonably informed about the issues of the day is fundamental to participating meaningfully in the democratic process, but as those issues become more technically (and otherwise) difficult to understand the bar to such participation gets raised.   And, given the crucial role that experts play in helping others try to understand such issues, the related ethical bar – by which I mean the need for experts involved in a public dialogue to be either conflict free or conflict transparent – is raised as well.

Take the example of “fracking,” an area of considerable complexity, and my own attempts – as a citizen who wants to be reasonably informed – to understand it.   Initially, I was skeptical about the wisdom of the fracking but the more I read the more it seemed, on balance, like a good idea (assuming strong environmental safety measures are put in place and that the embrace of fracking does not diminish the development and deployment of renewable energy sources).

But now I’m a bit less sure – given recent stories like this piece   and this one   about undisclosed ties to the energy industry by those publicly opining on various aspects of fracking.  These and similar pieces make me wonder, if fracking really is a good thing, why do its proponents need to pursue unethical means to promote it?

From the perspective of a citizen seeking to be informed, it can be hard to avoid drawing an “adverse inference” from these sorts of undisclosed conflicts, by which I mean suspecting that the reason a conflicted expert is playing a key role in opining/researching a given matter is because a conflicts-free one would view the merits of a matter differently.  Note that adverse inferences based on wrongdoing are not always logical. (In this connection, here’s a law review article on “adverse inferences about adverse inferences” ).  However, they have long played a powerful role in our thinking and, in addition to having a force born of habit, they have enough logic to be attractive.

Further, as the issues of the day become more complex and difficult to address on their merits, the adverse inference becomes a more attractive – if not necessarily more logical – way to resolve issues.   This is a possibly non-obvious reason why, in my view, the ethical bar for disclosing COIs in research is, in effect, raised as the need of the public to be able to trust experts in understanding significant public policy issues grows.  (But, of course, the main reason is to  prevent the public from being misled by undisclosed COIs. )

Finally, for more information on the danger of overreactions to COIs see this post on “reverse conflicts of interest.”


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