Ethics and Statistics

Chance magazine has started a new feature, the “Ethics and Statistics column, which is likely to be of interest to lawyers and to statisticians who work on litigation issues.  The column is edited by Andrew Gelman.  Judging from the Gelman’s first column, I think that the column may well become a valuable forum for important scientific and legal issues arising from studies used in public policy formulation, and in reaching conclusions that are the bases for scientific expert witnesses’ testimony in court.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science in Columbia University.  He is also the director of the University’s Applied Statistics Center.   Gelman’s inaugural column touches on some issues of great importance to legal counsel who litigate scientific issues involving scientific studies:  access to underlying data in the studies that are the bases for expert witness opinions.  See Andrew Gelman, “Open Data and Open Methods,” 24 Chance 51 (2011).

Gelman acknowledges that conflicts are not only driven by monetary gain; they can be potently raised by positions or causes espoused by the writer:

“An ethics problem arises when you are considering an action that

(a) benefits you or some cause you support,

(b) hurts or reduces benefits to others, and

(c) violates some rule.”

Id. at 51a.

Positional conflicts among scientists whose studies touch upon policy issues give rise to “the ethical imperative to share data.”  Id. at 51c.  Naming names, Professor Gelman relates an incident in which he wrote to an  EPA scientist, Carl Blackman, who had presented a study on the supposed health effects of EMF radiation.   Skeptical of how Blackman had analyzed data, Gelman wrote to Blackman to request his data to carry out additional, alternative statistical analyses.  Blackman answered that he did not think these other analyses were needed, and he declined to share his data.

This sort of refusal is all too common, and typical of the arrogance of scientists who do not want others to be able to take a hard look at how they arrived at their conclusions.  Gelman reminds us that:

“Refusing to share your data is improper… .”

* * * *

“[S]haring data is central to scientific ethics.  If you really believe your results, you should want your data out in the open. If, on the other hand, you have a sneaking suspicion that maybe there’s something there you don’t want to see, and then you keep your raw data hidden, it’s a problem.”

* * * *

“Especially for high-stakes policy questions (such as the risks of electric power lines), transparency is important, and we support initiatives for automatically making data public upon publication of results so researchers can share data without it being a burden.”

Id. at 53.

To be sure, there are some problems with sharing data, but none that is insuperable, and none that should be an excuse for withholding data.  The logistical, ethical, and practical problems of data sharing should now be anticipated long before publication and the requests for data sharing arrive.

Indeed, the National Institutes of Health requires data sharing plans to be part of a protocol for a federally funded study.  See Final NIH Statement on Sharing Research Data (Feb. 26, 2003). Unfortunately, the NIH’s implementation and enforcement of its data-sharing policy is as spotty as a Damien Hirst painting.  SeeSeeing Spots” The New Yorker (Jan. 23, 2012).

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