Monday 8 December 2014

The voice of presumption

In an editorial co-written for the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, published yesterday, Dr Boyd Swinburn says scientists who represent the voice of the public in policy-making are being shouted down by large commercial interests and their views suppressed by attack campaigns.
In what sense do public health researchers, as earnest and honest as they may be, in any way represent "the voice of the public"?

At their best, public health researchers provide useful scientific data that can help individuals in assessing trade-offs, and that can also help inform policy as one of many considerations in the policy process.

But "the voice of the public"?

I suppose if that self-perception is common on the public health side, it explains a bit of how they come to the policy debate.

I'm far from convinced that either elections or polls can provide "the voice of the public", or that such a thing can even exist. People's views are too varied - thankfully. And there's that whole set of impossibility theorems on aggregating social preferences into any kind of "voice of the public".

As for being shouted down, it would be an interesting exercise to compare newspaper column inches of "large commercial interest attack campaigns" versus column inches of public health campaigners complaining about WhaleOil blog posts.

Swinburn continues:
In the article, co-authored with Australian professor Michael Moore, Swinburn said: "A blanket of suppression is insidiously descending on the voices for public health."
First, there were the interests of transnational corporationsand then there was the Government, which wanted to control public health information and messaging, Swinburn said.
While working in Australia's Deakin University, Swinburn said he experienced efforts to have reports cancelled or watered down and funding pulled, and he said that had started happening in New Zealand.
"There needs to be voices that are based in science standing up to that and speaking on behalf of the public," he said.
"There are plenty of voices on behalf of the commercial interest. But the number of voices on behalf of the public are getting fewer and weaker."
This is actually a tough one.

Suppose the government honestly contracts for some piece of research, the researcher produces and honest and true answer, and the government then suppresses it because politics. That by all accounts is bad.

Now imagine a contrary case where the government contracts for some piece of research, but the researcher produces a report that is, frankly, embarrassing: it would fail to withstand any rigorous scrutiny. Worse, the government's having funded the work could give it imprimateur if it were released. If the contracting agency then demands changes or wishes that the report not be released, that's different from efforts to water things down.

From the outside, a report's suppression in the two cases looks identical. The researcher in the second case would claim that the first case obtained, and the government in the first case would claim that the second case obtained. I suppose requiring rigorous truly external peer review on reports - and not just rubber stamps - is one way of preventing the latter but not the former.


  1. The problem with public health scientists is that they can't seem to distinguish where the science ends and the activism starts. That's what gets up our noses. The solutions are inevitably political and require no special scientific expertise. Predicably the contribution of the researchers to any solution is a "one size fits all" prohibition. And they wonder why they get blowback.

  2. Moore is a pseudo-professor: a former city alderman (called "minister" in the Australian Capital Territory). He is a politician made 'adjunct' professor, which is to say: not one at all. Cf "horse doctors": we might complain about vets with mere bachelor degrees, but at least they know about colic in horses . . .

  3. He does not represent my voice. But seems characteristic of someone with a heightened sense of self importance, who knows what is best for us mere mortals.

  4. >>Swinburn said: "A blanket of suppression is insidiously descending on the voices for public health

    I wish....

  5. I think the hardest part in the public debate is explaining that someone who claims to represent the interests of the poor, the downtrodden, or in this case, the victims of alcohol use, could be anything but saints, and their recommendations anything but infallible. Even if they are activists, the presumption is that activism should be in the public interest too.

    It's just not an argument a politician can win at the moment, and there are clear gains to those self appointed experts to continue their work.