Is it acceptable when scientists are employed by the tobacco industry? | Belicons

Is it acceptable when scientists are employed by the tobacco industry?

Posted on: 
Tuesday 23 Augustus 2016

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Is it acceptable when scientists are employed by the tobacco industry?

Photographer: Wikipedia, Zuzanna K. Filutowska

In the last few weeks I saw various documentaries on TV about smoking. Time and again I’m surprised that this industry can just continue like this. One of the subjects in one of these documentaries that amazed me the most was the connection between the tobacco industry and science.

For example professor Ragnar Rylander has been employed by Philip Morris and he misinformed people about smoking as a so called ‘independent scientist’. When a reporter asks him about this part of his life in the documentary The tobacco conspiracy he says scientific data is open to different interpretations.

How is it possible that they can make scientists to deceive us like this? And when something like this happens, can we still trust scientists?


Peiling: De wetenschap moet altijd met een korreltje zout genomen worden

Peiling: De wetenschap moet altijd met een korreltje zout genomen worden

Poll: Science should be taken with a grain of salt

Poll: Science should be taken with a grain of salt

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Body 2: 

I think that it is shocking to see that scientists are willing to do this. At the same time, we have all heard before about scientists having different opinions. Is it possible that Rylander is right when he says that scientific data are open to different interpretations? And if so, how should we deal with this as non-scientists? How do we see the difference between deceit and 'different interpretations'?.

How do scientists come to different interpretations?

For this it is important to see that scientists are humans too. This affects their work in the following ways:

  • The era in which the scientist is living

    Scientists have to conduct research in a certain way. A scientist can conduct genuine research but nevertheless it turns out later on, when science has developed further, that the results weren’t correct. Scientists live in a certain era and are thus dependent on the methods and ways of thinking of that time. So science will never be finished.

  • Pressure that the scientist experiences

    A scientist can experience pressure of a University to publish a lot of articles. Especially in this era this is a big problem. Therefore, a scientist may decide to publish their results already, even though the experiments should have been repeated more often in order to really be able to conclude something.

  • The own ideas that a scientist has

    Even the ideas that a scientist has can affect the results of their experiments. For example scientists have thought for years , and many still do, that that animals have no personality. Everything they do, they do because of their instinct. But in the last few decades, especially because of the work of Frans de Waal, it turns out more and more that animals indeed do have a personality.

    If a scientist thinks that all behaviour of an animal is just instinct, (s)he can then interpret certain behaviour very different than someone like Frans de Waal would.

  • Unintentional mistakes

    We should also take into account that since scientists are human beings, they can make unintentional mistakes. Even when (s)he repeats the experiment, (s)he can repeat the mistake too and because of that not discover it. Sometimes it can take years before another scientist can repeat the experiment and discover that something is not right.

  • Sensitivity of the scientist for factors outside of science

    It can also be that a certain scientist is sensitive for factors outside of their jobs.


    • Money

      If a company pays him or her a lot of money to say things which are actually not true, then some scientists are okay with this, like Ragnar Rylander

    • Prestige

      This was probably the reason of the fraud of Diederik Stapel. He was a successful psychologist and by making up a lot of data he became even more famous.


So Rylander is right when he says that scientific data if open to different interpretations.  But in case of Raylander, the documantairy shows that he knew that he was spreading false information.

Searching for multiple interpretations can be helpful, but in case of Rylander, it was not about a brainstorm,  but in order to confuse the main public and in that way to distract them from all evidence that there already was that smoking is really bad for our health.

Can we still trust scientific research?

I think we can certainly do that. But I also think that it is good to be aware of the fact that the person that the scientist is can affect the results of a research. How can we deal with that?


A few tips:


  • Spectacular discovery?

    When you hear about some spectacular discovery and you want to know whether you can trust it or not, it is good to read about it on Google to see what various people say about it. Sometimes you can find several side notes rather quickly. And by this I don't mean side notes of some people on Facebook or Twitter, but of people who really know more about the subject. In case of smoking, institutions that know much about lungs, or physicians can tell you more about it.

  • One experiment is no experiment

    It also helps to realize that an experiment should always be repeated before the results can be called 'scientifically proven'. So if one research shows something very spectacular, then we can hope that other scientists, who are also payed by someone else, are willing to repeat the research.

  • And I think that common sense is also very important here

    A funny example is that some scientists discovered some healthy properties of cocoa. Subsequently, people started to say that chocolate was healthy. But we all know that most chocolate doesn’t contain much cocoa, but it does contain a lot of sugar. So cocoa is healthy, but chocolate isn’t. And I think we actually all know that.

Science is and will be very important

So despite that we cannot trust what scientists tell us blindly, we do learn a lot from it. So don’t lose your head when one scientist say one thing and the other something else. There may be very good reasons for that. But be aware of the fact that scientist are human beings too and have their own feelings and ideas and aren’t always right. But as long as they don’t do that on purpose, it is no problem. Science is a continues journey of discoveries!

My answer to the question of this blog is: the tobacco industry hires scientists to deceive and misguide us and that is cannot be tolerated. Not only because people are mislead because of this, but also because they get less confidence in science, even though that is so important to us.

So, can the tobacco industry hire scientists? When theydeceive and misguide? No! Do you share this firm no? Or do you have a different opinion about this? Share your opinion, below or on the forum. I'm curious!

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