Monday, March 19, 2007

Conflict of Interest 2

Fake Steve Jobs accuses the Real Lawrence Lessig of a possible conflict of interest.
It seems to be getting easier to construct conflict-of-interest accusations against experts of all kinds. Thanks to the transparency and lack of privacy accorded by the Internet, we can probably trace some financial connections (direct or indirect) between any given expert and any given corporation.

Such financial connections have a tendency to undermine the credibility and perceived neutrality of the expert judgement. This is based on POSIWID thinking - a suspicion that the (hidden) purpose of any given judgement is to enrich the expert and/or his employer.

POSIWID thinking still applies if the sequence of events is reversed. A common pattern is that the payment precedes the opinion: Corporation A pays money to Institution B, which is used to fund research by Academic C, who subsequently (by a remarkable coincidence) expresses an opinion favourable to Corporate A. In this case, the purpose of the favourable opinion is not to trigger a specific payment (because that payment may have been made some years previously) but to perpetuate a system in which such payments are possible and encouraged.

But what happens if we take this thinking to the extreme, whereby anyone with genuine knowledge and expertise in any field is tarnished by some financial interest, however obscure or indirect? What happens if experts prefer to remain silent, rather than subject themselves to hostile scrutiny of their personal affairs? What happens if corporations don't fund research? It seems that the likely effect of this thinking is to erode expertise of all kinds.

Perhaps that's a good thing sometimes. We have seen appalling miscarriages of justice, caused by unchallenged but flawed opinions by so-called experts. And sometimes public policy has been grossly distorted by covert commercial interests. But the systematic erosion of expertise is problematic as well. Expertise performs a useful purpose, which cannot be completely replaced by amateur internet searches.

So where does this leave us? On one side we have the force of expertise, which is sometimes inappropriately and covertly coopted by powerful interests. On the other side we have the force of scepticism and suspicion, which is sometimes coopted by a kind of intellectual nihilism. Both sides are necessary for healthy debate. Nobody controls, but everyone contributes to, the system that maintains this balance.

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