Chemicals in My Food

John Coupland is a Professor of Food Science at Penn State. His research program is on the physical properties of foods, in particular fats and oils. He teaches undergraduate Food Chemistry and graduate level Food Chemistry and Food Physical Chemistry. This is about that.

Jun 15

Reflecting on Bias

Academic food scientists (like me) are sometimes accused of being entirely in the pocket of the food industry and thus our opinions and expertise are easily dismissed. While we may hotly dismiss these accusations, the issue is complex. I’m interested in the ways my judgment on food-related issues might be clouded, and while I haven’t reached a conclusion, here a few preliminary thoughts.

Although financial interests are the most commonly cited source of corruption, I personally don’t see them as the most important. I do get some money from industry but the amounts involved are small and I must declare any financial interests in any grant proposals or publications. If I lost all industry support I could proceed with my career, if I lost my capacity to act as an independent scholar I could not. As a tenured professor I have the privileged position of being able to make my own judgments about research I pursue. My university might be unhappy with my questions or answers but unless I am demonstrably unproductive there isn’t much they can do about it. An outside agency has even less power to force me to take a position. Almost no one else, industry insider or industry critic, enjoys such license. Academic freedom is so essential to a position I worked for decades to reach that I would react vigorously against anything I see as directly compromising it. More insidious and harder to resist though are the indirect, social influences on judgment.

I am an applied scientist and I work closely with the industry that seeks to apply my research. Indeed, it would be impossible be effective in my role without understanding the practices and constraints of application. However, in working with a group there is a tendency to adopt the values of that group. Say for example, an industry has historically added “Agent X” to their product as a Generally Regarded as Safe antimicrobial but recent blog posts have linked Agent X to skin rashes. Employees in the industry would have a commercial bias leading them to downplay the new claims. They would also have a cognitive bias leading them to reject any suggestion that they are “bad people” who have, even unintentionally, been harming their customers. The latter bias extends to peoplewho work closely with an industry and can cloud the way we think. The consequences of bias are unlikely to be blatant (falsification of data) but even subtle or unconscious bias can still be harmful (seeing lack of evidence for something as evidence against it, taking a different view of risk than that held by an outsider, accepting “everyone knows” as evidence, deciding which questions are worth pursuing).

Bias through “cultural sympathy” is perhaps the most insidious and common ways your capacity to think can be limited. Indeed, it is more likely to affect you the more you become committed to a cause. It may be as difficult for a “real food” campaigner to recognize the evidence that a synthetic additive might be safe as it is for a Professor of Food Science to see there might be a problem. I still think science offers the best way to resolve these questions, but to use it effectively we must ruthlessly separate what we know from what we believe.

[Image uploaded to flicker by colinjcampbell under the Creative Commons license]