Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Conflict of interest and blogging

There is currently an exodus going on from ScienceBlogs, where several prominent bloggers have decided that it is time to find somewhere else to blog.

As in any such thing, each blogger has his or her own reasons for stopping at ScienceBlogs, but to many of the recent departees, the whole fiasco with the PepsiCo blog was the final straw, but definitely not the only reason, as Bora Zivkovic explained in his departure post.

The very fact that Bora, of all people, has decided to depart ScienceBlogs, tells you that something is very wrong there.

Still, this post is not going to be about the current situation at ScienceBlogs, but instead it'll cover the more general area of conflict of interest and blogging.

Many people seem to consider this a trivial issue, but it is not.

Back when blogs started up, conflict of interest were a non-issue, as bloggers were generally not taken serious. Oh, occasionally bloggers would claim some sort of major victory, as when Trent Lott had to step down as Senate Minority leader in 2002, but mostly, it was safe to ignore blogs.

Now, on the other hand, blogs are a major part of many peoples' news sources, often able to break stories long before they reach main stream media. Blogs are also able to cover niche areas which are no longer covered by major media outlets, or if they are, not to the extend that blogs cover them.

One of these areas is science. Yes, most major news sources cover science (often lumped together with technology), but since there are numerous science stories every day, a lot will fall through the cracks of the media coverage. Unless they are picked up by bloggers, which many of them are.

This means that many science stories are only covered by bloggers.

There are some advantages to bloggers covering science stories - bloggers tend to be go less for the "big story", which often oversells the science and the results, and they tend to have some knowledge of the fields which they cover.

Not to say that they are necessarily experts - I cover science all the time, and I am no scientist - but they tend to gain some knowledge of the areas they write about. This means that their readers tend to rely on the bloggers' take on a give issue. A trust-relation is created between the readers and the bloggers.

This is fine, but it makes it possible for the biases of the bloggers to creep in and color the opinion of the readers, and since there are no one else (or at least very few) covering the area, it means that there is little opportunity for people to figure out there are biases at play.

This is of course problematic, but unfortunately there is little one can do about this (other than get people to read the primary source, if possible), since people are rarely aware of their own biases. Unless such biases are caused by conflicts of interest of course.

Conflicts of interest are much easier to handle, as long as they are made public, which allows the readers to take the conflict of interest into consideration when reading the material.

But what if you don't make the conflict of interest public? What if you decide that you can handle it, and not make it influence you writing? Is that really fair to your readers? Isn't that a breach of trust?

As a general rule, I don't consider bloggers reliable sources, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't want to know of any biases which might influence their writing. This would make it easier for me to evaluate their writing. Yes, theoretically writing should be able to stand on its own, but in reality, there are lots of ways to ensure that writing seems reasonable, without it being so. For examples of this, just go look at any pro-homeopathy writing about homeopathy studies.

So, for me, if I found out that a given blogger was writing on a subject with a clear conflict of interest (e.g. an Apple employee writing about Apple products without disclosing the affiliation), it would be a breach of trust. It doesn't mean that I would stop reading that particular blogger (though it might), but it would mean that I wouldn't trust anything that blogger wrote ever again (much like I don't trust people who have been caught plagiarizing).

Back when I started blogging, I decided to avoid ads on the blog because I didn't want any possibility of a conflict of interest (and because I knew that at least some of them would probably end up being ads for woo). So, I can understand why some ScienceBloggers decided that they didn't want to share network with a commercial blog, or stay in a network where this was a possibility. I'd make the same decision.

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