Friday, March 30, 2012

Follow the Honey

There is lots of buzz (sorry) about a pair of just-published articles that provide further evidence that the colony collapse disorder, which is decimating bee populations around the world, can be at least partially attributed to neonicotinoids, one of the most widely used of pesticides. There has been a lot of controversy around this class of agents, and they are banned or restricted in much of Europe—but not in the US. In the writeup in this morning’s New York Times, after a brief summary of the new research, we get this paragraph:
Outside experts were divided about the importance of the two new studies. Some favored the honeybee study over the bumblebee study, while others felt the opposite was true. Environmentalists say that both studies support their view that the insecticides should be banned. And a scientist for Bayer CropScience, the leading maker of neonicotinoids, cast doubt on both studies, for what other scientists said were legitimate reasons.
There followed comments from four of these outside experts. One is from the main producer of neonicotinoids; he thinks the studies are flawed. Another is from the US Department of Agriculture, who thinks the studies shift the weight of research against the pesticide. The other two, both from academia, were evenly balanced, one finding the studies persuasive, the other not.

In other words, the article is a he-said, she-said about pesticides and colony collapse, which relieves the author from having to express his own judgment. Worse, there is no indication whether either or both of the academics have received funding from pesticide manufacturers. Research in entomology and ecotoxicity is expensive, and much of it is funded by industry. Being on the receiving end of pesticide dollars does not invalidate a scholar’s argument, but it is certainly relevant information for nonspecialists who want to know who to believe.

This is an interesting topic for me, because economics has the same problem: a lot of academic, not to mention think tank, economic researchers are funded by business interests with a stake in what their research shows. They present their views to the general public, but rarely with a disclosure of their own interests: the Inside Job problem.

I have two recommendations. First, there should be a public registry, for bee researchers and economists alike, that records any substantial funding they may have received from private individuals or organizations. Journalists should be able to look up this information online and include it in their reports. Professional organizations, like the AEA, should iron out the details and monitor compliance.

Second, journalists have to graduate from the duelling quote game. The only alternative is to write stories that explain, in terms that the public can understand, what the substantive issues are in scholarly disputes, and why some experts go one way and others go another. If a journalist does not have the expertise to do this herself, she should outsource the work to a panel of experts. Their job is not to take sides but to explain, as clearly as possible, what the root basis of the disagreement is, so that readers can understand the points on which the argument turns. In this scenario the job of the journalist is to put together the panel and use her writing skills to make their analysis clear to nonspecialists.

Year by year, more of the issues that democracy has to deal with are technical in nature. Journalism is the indispensable intermediary between arcane knowledge and popular debate. The job isn’t being done very well right now.


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