Archive for the ‘discursive validity’ Category


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 theĀ 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.