The Funding Effect in Science and in Law

In some circles, the mere mention that a study or a paper was sponsored by an oil company is sufficient to discredit its findings, methods, and analyses, on the merits. For instance, in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 501 (2008), the Supreme Court struck down a $2.5 billion punitive damage award.  Justice Souter, writing for the Court in a 5-3 decision, observed that:

“We are aware of no scholarly work pointing to consistency across punitive awards in cases involving similar claims and circumstances.17

In his now infamous footnote 17, Justice Souter explained:

“The Court is aware of a body of literature running parallel to anecdotal reports, examining the predictability of punitive awards by conducting numerous ‛mock juries’, where different ‛jurors’ are confronted with the same hypothetical case. See, e.g., C. Sunstein, R. Hastie, J. Payne, D. Schkade, W. Viscusi, Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide (2002); Schkade, Sunstein, & Kahneman, Deliberating About Dollars: The Severity Shift, 100 Colum. L.Rev. 1139 (2000); Hastie, Schkade, & Payne, Juror Judgments in Civil Cases: Effects of Plaintiff’s Requests and Plaintiff’s Identity on Punitive Damage Awards, 23 Law & Hum. Behav. 445 (1999); Sunstein, Kahneman, & Schkade, Assessing Punitive Damages (with Notes on Cognition and Valuation in Law), 107 Yale L.J. 2071 (1998). Because this research was funded in part by Exxon, we decline to rely on it.”

Somehow it escaped Justice Souter’s attention that some of the investigators (Sunstein, Viscusi, Kahneman, et al.) in the papers were outstanding scientists and scholars. The mere funding disclosure gave Justice Souter the excuse to avoid any hard thinking and intellectual engagement with the merits of these papers.

The world of philosophy provides another example. Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, and a frequent commentator on junk science. Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (2010). In railing against positions taken by a so-called “think tank,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Professor Pigliucci felts compelled to note, on almost every mention, that the Institute is partially funded by Exxon-Mobil, and so its pronouncements should be discounted. See, e.g., id. at 156.

Chris Prandoni, a contributor to Forbes, recently published a story about a Senate investigation into the “funding effect” of various environmentalist organizations. Chris Prandoni, “Senate Committee Report Details Environmentalists’ Inner Workings,” (July 30, 2014). Prandoni notes that the environmental movement has morphed into a billion-dollar industry, with funding by many one-percenters. The minority staff of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) has issued a report entitled The Chain of Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA (July 30, 2014), which documents how a “Billionaires’ Club” funds many, if not most, of the environmental non-government organizations and their media and grassroots activities.

The Committee report also describes how many scientists and leaders from the funded organizations have entered the “revolving door” of the Obama Administration’s agencies. The Committee might have expanded its focus to include organizations such as the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), a pass-through organization for the plaintiffs’ bar, a/k/a the litigation industry. SKAPP was formerly headed by David Michaels, now head of OSHA. SeeSKAPP a Lot” (April 30, 2010).

Other organizations that front for the interests of wealthy lawyers seeking to expand the largesse of the tort system include the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (“CERT”), and the Center for Progressive Reform. See Milward Symposium Organized By Plaintiffs’ Counsel and Witnesses” (Feb. 16, 2013).

The Senate Committee report highlights the hypocrisy of some critics of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in, Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010), which held that the First Amendment prohibits governmental restrictions of corporations’ independent political expenditures. The hypocritical criticism lay in denouncing the political expenditures and speech of corporations, as corrupted by the wealth and motivations of the speakers, while turning blind eyes from huge expenditures by wealthy self-styled public interest groups through think tanks and non-governmental organizations. Even foreign governments have joined in the spending spree. See Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams & Nicolas Confessore, “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks,” N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2014).

Perhaps it is time to follow the data as ardently as we follow the money?

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