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.

"Large pharmaceutical companies, for example, routinely fund research into new drugs in their own research laboratories," they say in their forthcoming report. "Academics engaged in human trials of these same drugs are often funded by the pharmaceutical companies. Government agencies approving new products for public consumption routinely rely on information supplied by these companies and academics as to the safety and efficacy of their products."

Plenty of opportunity for the Exxon factor to raise its ugly head there.

The issue is not whether, in the end, the brilliant scientist at Exxon or Harvard or anywhere else turns out to be right or wrong. The issue is how the idea became accepted, and whether the evidence was made available to outside peers who also did their job by scrutinizing it carefully.

The verdict isn't in yet on the Exxon theory, which is still hotly debated in geological circles. Andrew Miall is convinced it is flawed. Others think it is a valuable tool.

Shifting Shoreline?

The theory is based on the idea that sea levels have changed periodically throughout history, and each time the seas rose the shoreline was pushed inland, and each time the seas dropped the shoreline moved farther out. That's significant to petroleum geologists, because shoreline deposits form rocks that make very good oil reservoirs. That's why major oilfields are in areas that were formerly under the sea.

According to the theory, sea levels changed consistently around the world with the melting and re-freezing of glacial ice. That would mean that the formation of potentially oil-bearing rocks would follow the same pattern globally. So if you know precisely when the rocks in the oil-rich coastal fields of Texas were formed, all you have to do is find similar dates in other areas of the globe and bingo, you've got oil.

"You could establish sort of a template that you could then use to lay against other areas anywhere in the world," Andrew Miall says. "It would enable you to do very quick comparisons and facilitate the business of predicting where reservoirs would be found."

The theory swept across the petroleum community like wildfire, and even Miall "published a textbook in 1984 in which I swallowed this stuff completely."

But somewhere along the way, he and others began to have doubts. Sea levels wouldn't change consistently around the world, they argued, because conditions vary from one location to the next. If the tectonic processes that build mountains caused one continent to rise faster than the increase in sea level, then the sea level along that shoreline would actually drop, Miall argues.

Others argue just as forcefully that the theory has merit and can be a valuable tool in screening for areas that might yield oil deposits.

Lacking Data

But the fact remains, according to the Mialls, that the data that has been made public in support of the theory is still woefully lacking all these years later.

"It was the reputation of Exxon that lent credence to the work that was coming out of there," Charlene Miall says. "The kind of validation that was given to it by scientists outside of Exxon was based almost entirely on non scientific factors."

In short, the "Exxon factor."

By the way, that's not the sin God will not forgive. But maybe it should be.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.