Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

Better Understanding Conflict of Interest By Studying Bias

So much strum und drang in the air. So many panties in a bunch. The offensitive are on the warpath about, well, everything. We seem to have a surfeit of ethicists among us, proclaiming in nearly real time where anything and everything fits on some mythical ethics grid. To them I offer my own filter, the question I ask before I expend an iota of energy of any kind on the type of “news” that has them all so agitated:

Is what I am viewing unethical, or simply unseemly?

Ethics is a synonym for morals. As such it should be universal and timeless. Ethics should bear nothing in common with fashion.

Speaking of which, it is fashionable in pretty much any field in which expertise can be obtained and the label “expert” attained to lay waste to those so acclaimed by accusing them of having a “conflict of interest”. Traditionally this meant that one might enjoy some sort of tangible gain by trafficking in one’s area of expertise, thereby rendering the expert’s stated opinions somehow tainted. Of late it means that being employed by someone with whom your critic has a beef means your standing to hold an opinion at all is nullified.


We would be a wiser society if we instead made an effort to sort through the biases held by experts in any field. To demand that one not express any opinion that would support your employ should disqualify the individual who holds such a position, not the expert. To look at the bias that may be present in any expert opinion allows the audience to better evaluate both the veracity of the opinion, as well as its relevance to their own situation. For example, in my day job I have a strong bias to treat any condition that produces meaningful symptoms in my patients.

In truth, in many of the general categories that I cover my remuneration is identical whether or not I treat. Those who bleat on about conflict of interest would seek to nullify all of my thoughts simply because I make my living in the arena on which I opine. Again, this is silly. It is far more useful to read my professional writing through the prism of my pro-treatment bias. In so doing it is far easier to compare and contrast my public opinions with others in my space who may differ. Do they differ on substance, or do they differ because or a countervailing bias?

This is not to say that conflicts of interest do not exist, or that if they do exist that they are never a problem. If you have invented a medical device and choose to use your own device rather than a competitor’s you have a COI. Disclosure of your COI should be mandatory (I disclose all consulting contracts around prescription drugs, for example). If they are of equal quality (equal safety, equivalent outcomes), the COI is mooted. If your device is much more expensive (thereby generating much more income to you), your conflict of interest is unseemly but not necessarily unethical. It should be obvious on its face that using your invention if it is less effective (or Heaven forbid, unsafe) is unethical.

Expertise exists everywhere. Here, on CrossFit.com in the fitness world. Would you disqualify Greg Glassman because CrossFit has been a successful business? How about Jeff and Mikki Martin who have launched a business in the same space? Is their competition a conflict that nullifies their contributions to youth fitness? Among the bureaucrats at the EPA in the care of the environment. Do they not have a contribution to make despite their tax-supported position? Is their (presumed) anti-business bias a reason to dismiss all federal policy? Among the various and sundry talking heads on all of the financial offerings on cable news channels. Don’t you really want them to be rich and successful, especially if you are going to follow their advice?

If we seek to understand the biases that exist underneath the opinions of experts we can better evaluate the conflicts of interest that they inevitably carry along with those opinions. From there is is an easier task to evaluate the character of those conflicts, and better decide whether or not we accept their guidance.

Getting paid to be an expert and to share your expertise is only a meaningful conflict of interest if it is unseemly or unethical, not just unfashionable.


Difference of Opinion Now Equals Enemy?*

When did a difference of opinion become a de facto conflict? When did the evaluation of another come down to whether or not they hue to a fine line of agreement on a single, or a few, or G0d forbid every issue? When did this phenomenon then morph into one in which a difference of opinion then becomes the basis for labeling another ‘good’ or bad’?

Am I the only one who’s noticed this?

I’m not talking about a difference of opinion which is then followed by a concerted attack, one that forces you to identify the holder of the other opinion as ‘bad’, and enemy. There’s nothing new to see there. One only has so many cheeks to turn. Eventually you need to fight or flee an attack, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

On a personal, local, and national level we could once identify broad stroke issues on which we could generally base a level of agreement or disagreement, very few of which would be a ‘deal-breaker’ when it came to civil discourse. The first part of this, the existence of broad stroke issues, remains true. What is fundamentally different in my mind is how un-moveable many of us have become on ever more minute details as we drill down from the 30,000 foot view. All well and good, I suppose, to seek fidelity to an ever more granular level of agreement on whatever issue is at hand, especially in this age when we have ever greater ways in which to find and connect with people of a like mind.

What I don’t get is the subsequent labeling of any and all others as “bad”. Unworthy. Lesser in some way because they do not agree at every level with a particular–very particular–point of view. As I remember it the “80-20″ Rule pretty much applied to belief systems as well as business: if you shared 80% of your beliefs with another that was plenty good enough to allow a friendship, and certainly enough to inoculate against a conflict. Now? Seems like something more like the “980-20″ rule: only the smallest amount of the most trivial difference of opinion is permissible. Anything more than nuance between people and they’re going to the mattresses. Anything more than nuance and we’ve identified something other, something lesser, something to destroy.

What’s up with that?

You could say that anything other than full devotion to a cause or a concept or a worldview is not pragmatism but something more akin to weakness. An inferiority of spirit, perhaps. You could say that nothing other than full devotion to some grand theme or concept is acceptable and brook no deviation from a one, true path. I would say that the world is infinitely too complex to approach life in this manner. I would further say that to do so needlessly isolates you from people who might very well bring infinite joy to your life despite differential nuance or even a fundamental disagreement on one issue. Living and letting live rather than identifying a different opinion as identifying the other as an enemy might just mean a more pleasant life filled with more people who might be better described as friends, or at least friendly.

At the very least perhaps we could just agree to disagree and be on our way.


*Lest one think this is a reaction to the news of the day, originally written in April 2014.