Conflicts of Interest

February 9, 2010

Rajendra Pachauri has been getting a fair bit of heat recently for alleged conflicts of interest. He has coyly denied any such allegation. There are many strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest, of course, and those are specified by the NAS rules that Roger cites over at his blog. Among them, the rules are in place to protect a person from giving the impression that his/her objectivity has been compromised.

There is, in principle, nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest. We’re not determined by our circumstances, after all. It’s entirely possible to conduct research, or to argue on behalf of a position, while contemporaneously being employed by, or funded by, some entity that shares your interests. In fact, it would be near impossible not to do so. We all ride on waves of normativity (whatever the hell that means).

What strikes me as interesting about reactions to the recent COI flap are the kinds of arguments that support it.

For one, someone might say that we have strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest. The lumpen masses might well misunderstand our conclusions, or falsely challenge our claims, if we are conflicted. That political line of reasoning is different than the claim that most existing institutions have COI rules, so therefore the IPCC ought to have binding COI rules. That is also a different line of reasoning than the line that suggests, as the NAS COI rules suggest, that one ought not to have conflicts of interest to “protect oneself” from defamation.

So there you have at least three lines of argument: the political, the conventional, and the prudential. But there are more.

The NAS also offers the justification that COI rules are objective (meaning procedurally impartial, I’d guess) and that they are prophylactic. They are in place, it appears, to steer a practitioner (any practitioner) away from temptation. That’s yet a fourth line of argument.

Seems to me that there are other important lines of argument too, and maybe these need quite a bit more attention.

One reason to have COI rules is to ensure that the procedure by which information is introduced and validated is immune from scrutiny, independently of whether the fickle individuals, or the fickle facts, caught up in that procedure are. It’s not that procedures themselves necessarily need to be cleansed of all normative pollutants, but rather that that’s what would make a conclusion (arrived at through such a procedure) valid. The validity doesn’t hang on the conclusion’s correspondence with the world, but rather on the extent to which the means of arriving at the conclusion are subject to an appropriately wide scrutiny.

And that’s where it gets damned tricky.

An “appropriately wide scrutiny” is a sufficiently vague notion. Calls to make the scrutiny wider than is appropriate, as some are charging, may equally undermine the authority of the critics. More on this in a bit. Right now? I’m off to class.


  1. Roger is rather quick to see conflicts of interest in those he opposes. With regard to Pachauri, Joerg Zimmerman points out that in the Spiegel article he wrote with Tol and von Storch

    “They state that the IPCC chairman, Pachauri, has personally benefited from the fact that it was stated in the IPCC Working Group II report on social, environmental and economic consequences of climate change, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035, if climate change continues its dramatic progress. This claim arises because an institute that Pauchauri is involved in, TERI (Energy and Resources Institute), has received a research contract based on the erroneous paragraph in the IPCC report. It is true that Pachauri is chairman of the Institute and this Institute has received a major research contract to study the consequences of a melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Roger Pielke Jr’s guess is that TERI would not have been considered for the research mission, if the said paragraph was not in the IPCC report. In fact we definitely know that the glaciers in the Himalayas, and worldwide the majority of glaciers (with some exceptions), are sharply declining and this has long term consequences for the local water balance. Even if the Himalayan glaciers decline only partially by 2035, by 2100 serious impacts on water supplies in parts of Asia are possible, and a study of these effects is a relevant issue for India. Pielke Jr. ‘s insinuation is based on a very shaky assumption: namely, that Pachauri had an opportunity to instruct the scientists writing Chapter 10 of the IPCC Working Group II report to exaggerate the risks involved in the Himalayan glaciers melting [ and then used this to snare a grant from the Indian government – ER added]. Pielke, Jr. makes no effort to make this libel plausible. He leaves it to the imagination of the audience for whom the background is not quite clear. In this context it is probably meaningless when Pachauri points out that he personally does not receive any payment from TERI and therefore according to the rules of the IPCC there is no conflict of interest.”

    Of course, Roger has no trouble pointing out that Real Climate is hosted by Environmental Media Services, which makes them oh so political, while Roger Sr.’s web site is hosted by Tony Watts. Nothing there, keep on moving.

    Time to grow up and move out of the Pielkesphere Ben.

  2. “Time to grow up and move out of the Pielkesphere Ben”

    Eli does irony. It is good advice, Eli should follow it.

  3. Well, the truth is that I work pretty closely with Roger, so where the rest of you suckaz only get to experience him through his blog or through his quotes in the news, I actually see and talk to him on an almost daily basis (when he’s not jetting around the world). Take that for what it’s worth.

    But suppose this for a moment. Suppose that you were trying to design a procedure for vetting and validating claims. Supposing such a thing, what sorts of standards would you bring to bear on the vetting and validation of said claims?

    I assume you’d insist upon a system that would resist explicit conflicts of interest or apparent conflicts of interest.

    To be sure, the claims that Roger makes are employed sometimes to political ends; but it is just as true that the claims he makes are not outside of the scientific mainstream. That’s why they have some resonance.

    I left room at the end of my post for conceptions of “appropriate wideness.” One can argue, and one can argue maybe persuasively, that Roger is demanding that the scrutiny be inappropriately wide. I think there’s a fair bit of space for that position. Maybe this issue is of such political urgency, for instance, that focusing on the small details like Pachauri’s compensation is a kind of obstructionism.

    If you understand what Roger’s up to, however, I think you’ll see that not only is he raising the political hackles of the climate community, but he’s carving out a space for the legitimacy of scientific input in the policy community. Though some may feel that the standards of scientific validity and scientific legitimacy in the policy community should be the same, I think there are strong arguments that the standards cannot be the same.

  4. Carving out a space for the legitimacy of scientific input in the policy community?

  5. By which I refer to the standards by which scientific claims can or ought to be accepted as “legitimate,” or as having political legitimacy.

    • Given RP Jr.’s constant arguments with climate scientists about what their results mean and his frequent attempts to sabotage their work (as in l’affaire Pachauri), I find the idea of RP Jr. of all people somehow being a gatekeeper for such a thing to be completely frightening. Or did you mean “carving up”?

  6. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if the IPCC had clearly stated and reasonable conflict of interest rules that were strictly adhered to.

    None of this is brain science! As a journalist, I can’t accept a freebie trip to Costa Rica if I want to write about Costa Rica for a publication like the New York Times. It makes absolutely no difference that I am an ethical journalist who would never color his reporting just because some travel company was nice to me. The rule is there to prevent both an actual conflict of interest, and a perceived conflict of interest. Without the rule, I lose credibility. And what Pachauri has now is a credibility problem created by a perceived conflict of interest.

    And make no mistake about it, the problem here is of perceptions. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and the so-called “news” reporters on Fox News and even that abomination of a network called CNN can make the bogus charge of corruption stick simply because of appearances. If there were a well-thought out policy designed to avoid even the perception of a conflict, Pachauri would not be so vulnerable. (Assuming he abided by the policy.)

    There’s also a problem here because of the way Pachauri responded to the Himalayan issue. The right way to respond would have been to very publicly to have said, “WOAH! That sure was a screw up. I don’t know how it happened, but it should not have happened — and I will do everything in my power to figure out what happened and make sure that something like this never ever happens again.” Instead, he brushed it off and said it would be taken care of in the next assessment report. And now, the rest is history.

    So Pachauri may well be as pure as the snow that fell here in Boulder yesterday. (But not in Washington. Nothing that falls in Washington is pure.) But it don’t matter one whit because he, and many other scientists involved in this process, are utterly blind to what’s going on around them.

  7. Tom, the problem is not perception the problem is mud slinging and it is emerging that that is where the stories are. Given the torquing up of indignation based on very weak evidence and the calls for climate scientists to kill themselves from Glen Beck and Limbaugh and bloggers across the Pielkesphere (Eli rather likes the term, and it includes WUWT so let’s not pretend no) it is getting serious

    Roger is repeatedly dishonest by omission and sometimes by commission. People like Steve Bloom, Gavin Schmidt, Michael Tobis are not after the Pielke’s for their different opinions, we are after them because it is impossible to have a discussion with them without their constant distortions. Ask Evan Mills or Susan Hasool how they enjoyed Roger’s drive bys.

    Roger Jr. has never been about carving out a space for the legitimacy of scientific input in the policy community, he has always been about walling off the scientific community from the policy community so he could control the message. If you think differently tell Eli how under his “honest broker” rubric a scientist could tell a policy maker that some of the studies out there are nonsense and others were reliable.

    Part of the reason Eli likes Ben is that Ben lays it all on the table, not hiding the rook behind his beard (he might recognize the story). We may and do disagree, but we don’t have to count our fingers.

    OK, everything needs a concrete example. Here is a Rogerism that sticks particularly in Eli’s craw.

    “1. In the battle over smoking efforts to deny a link between smoking and health risks seems to have been completely a lost effort. There is precious little evidence of the effects of such campaigns in this data. Of course, one could argue that the rate of decrease would be larger without such campaigns, however, if that were the case one would probably expect to see shorter term effects as such campaigns are more or less successful over time. This is a puzzle.”

    What anyone not living under a rock knows is that the long campaign held regulation at bay and lead to millions of excess deaths and yes, Joe Camel addicted a lot of kids in the 1990s as did a lot of the campaigns based on filter cigarettes in the 1950s/60s. These effects can be clearly seen in the data.

  8. Tommy would take Eli much more seriously if he came out of his rabbit hole and used his real name.

    In any case, I don’t work as closely with Roger as Ben does, but i still interact with him quite a bit. And Eli, since you like Ben so much, I’ll quote him: “…so where the rest of you suckaz only get to experience him through his blog or through his quotes in the news, I actually see and talk to him…”

    Thanks Ben for that help with the syntax.

  9. Kiss up, kick down

  10. You guys are so silly.

  11. We get it. Eli is angry and obsessed. Eli likes Ben. Lucky Ben.

  12. Naw, Eli is jealous about how Roger flacks for the Breakthrough guys while being on their board.

  13. Eli, do you always make stuff up? Or just sometimes?

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