When Reputation Outweighs Data

There's a wonderful line in the classic movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba seeks to explain why he knows there is one sin God will not forgive. "I know," Zorba says, "because a wise old Turk told me so."

That was good enough for Zorba, and according to two Canadian researchers who have a passionate interest in why one arcane theory became widely accepted in the global scientific community, it should satisfy some scientists as well.

Andrew D. Miall, a geologist at the University of Toronto, and his collaborator and wife, Charlene E. Miall, a sociologist at McMaster University in Ontario, have developed convincing evidence that scientists can be guilty of the same faulty reasoning the rest of us employ regularly. All too often, a new idea is accepted because the person who espouses it is thought to be brilliant, or is associated with a prestigious organization, not because there is sufficient evidence to support the idea.

Us commoners do that all the time. If the guy's from Harvard, he must be right. But that's not the way it's supposed to work in the world of science. Harvard or not, the data's got to be there or the guy is sent packing.

Or so we think.

'Reputational Capital'

The Mialls have spent years studying a theory advanced in the 1970s by a noted Exxon scientist, and quickly became accepted around the world despite the fact that the data supporting the theory was not released. They call it the "Exxon factor."

"Just about everybody bought into it at the time, including myself, and for awhile it pretty well dominated thinking in the petroleum community," says geologist Miall.

The Mialls have interviewed dozens of scientists inside and outside of Exxon, some of whom worked on the research at the oil giant. The scientists generally agree that the theory gained rapid acceptance around the world simply because it came from Exxon, noted for its well-funded research programs, despite the fact that data supporting the theory was withheld.

No one thought that was peculiar at the time. Private corporations, especially in the oil industry, routinely withhold data because they don't want to give their competitors information that cost a bundle to acquire.

"What interests sociologists is the extent to which the principles on which science is built didn't seem to apply here," says Charlene Miall. "In the end it was the social factors around Exxon, the perception of it as a fantastic place to do research, and all this secret data. It was obviously important, because all of the data was secret."

Exxon was believed to be too big and powerful, and staffed with too many brilliant people, to be wrong, the Mialls argue in a report to be published in the spring in The Sociological Quarterly.

Sociologists, of course, have a name for it. It's called "reputational capital."

Missiles and Drugs

Although the Mialls' research concerns a decades-old debate, it is very relevant today and they see possible parallels in several areas. They cite the planned anti-missile defense system as one example. Data that could help independent scientists determine whether it is feasible is classified, and much of the data used by policy-makers comes from corporations or organizations that stand to profit from building the system. So acceptance of its feasibility depends largely on the credibility of whoever is making the claims, not the raw data.

Even consumer items may fall victim to the Exxon factor, they argue.

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