Thursday, March 25, 2010

Science with an Agenda

CNN reports today that a new long-term study from Princeton implicates high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in obesity. Critics from the processed food industry and big Agra are piling on to criticize the study as flawed.

I have not read the study report or its critiques, but this behavior on the part of those with a vested interest in corn production and sales reflects a pervasive problem in the modern scientific world. Researchers are not left to study what interests them and add to the deposit of human knowledge -- they are expected to investigate what will serve some other than scientific purpose and woe be to the researcher who publishes information that is unfavorable to any large industry or interest group.

I recall a time when researchers at Bell Laboratories, under the aegis of pre-divestment AT&T, were told to investigate and discover, with no mandate to produce results that would shore up Ma Bell's bottom line. This was as near pure science as any in my lifetime, I think -- the ethic being that all knowledge is good and ultimately useful. The practical benefits included the transistor, the photovoltaic cell, fiber optic cables and a series of educational films directed by Frank Capra. Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent and The Strange Case of the Cosmic Ray did more to build curiosity about the natural world and respect for those who devoted their lives to discovery for its own sake than all the lectures, textbooks and journal articles we were required to endure in our years of formal education.

Perhaps the researchers at Princeton were seduced by their proximity to the Institute for Advanced Study, which still prides itself on doing pure science. They must have thought, "If they can do it, so can we." They can, but at their own risk. Had they kept their results secret rather than trying to do the socially responsible thing -- had they not felt obliged to warn the public that daily consumption of HFCS might not be a good idea, there would be no controversy. They stepped on some very rich toes and that is always fraught with peril.


  1. All research and development has an agenda. R&D is very expensive. Someone is footing that bill.

  2. All I am saying is don't blame science. Science does what is does. It seeks and finds truth and what works. Moneyed interests and profit seekers use the findings of science for good or ill. That is, the agenda of science is truth; the agenda of business is profit no matter whether its products are salubrious or not.

    See Mr. Karr's earlier post that discusses what I call: Freedom, not licence.