Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘morality’

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.