Cultural and ideological bias in scientific literature reviews

 

The scientific community is international but it is surely dominated, and influenced by, something less international – the overwhelming predominance of  the use of the English language.

In the past when that dominance was less extreme scientists were more aware of the need to use non-English sources. Scientific degree courses often had a requirement for a degree of scientific fluency in an alternative language. I learned German and Russian and have often needed to translate scientific papers in both these languages. In fact, several times I can trace a breakthrough in my research to a Russian or German paper I translated.

So, I was often disappointed when searching the literature to come across papers in a less dominant language like Mongolian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Arabic, etc. Very often these were published in unattainable obscure journals or periodicals. While I was aware that such papers were perhaps of poor quality I still lamented my inability to check that out for myself. I felt I  might be missing something useful.

I can’t help thinking that scientific reviews, even systematic ones, may suffer from such omissions. After all the problems of expense and the probably poor quality of obscure papers usually mean that even systematic reviewers will not be able to obtain obscure papers and their translations.

But there is the other side. What happens if ideologically motivated groups able to make the financial investment obtain and translate obscure papers which fit their political or commercial biases? Can that not result in the “skewing” of readily available literature? Could it result ion the wider availability and influence of poor quality research?

One would hope scientific reviewers critically and intelligently appraise the papers they review. This would help prevent promotion of poor science. But not all scientific reviewers may be that objective. And certainly, such poor quality science can be promoted in the popular literature and used for political and ideological campaigns.

Bad science promoting the fluoridation/IQ myth

This is what has happened with the promotion of the fluoride/IQ myth by anti-fluoride campaigners. Several years ago the Fluoride Action Network (the main activist group campaigning against community water fluoridation internationally) paid for the searching out, and translation into English, obscure articles (mainly Chinese) suggesting a link between fluoride in drinking water and child IQ. These articles represented in almost all cases poor quality research mostly published in obscure journals, newsletters and conferences. Given the bias of FAN, preference was clearly given to articles supporting their party line.

The result is that these articles have now entered into English language scientific literature – via publication of the translations in the journal Fluoride – a poor quality, English language journal, linked organisationally and financially to FAN. This has introduced an ideologically promoted skewing of the available literature – on top of the well-understood publication bias (negative results are rarely published). Such skewing is important for reviewers such as those in the US  National Toxicology Program considering a new systematic review on (see Fluoride and IQ – another study coming up).

Don’t get me wrong. Despite the biases of this translation process I like to see such obscure studies, even poor quality one, made available to researchers. And sensible, conscientious reviewers will take the poor quality into account. But less objective researchers can opportunistically use such material to support their preferred hypothesis. This has happened with the fluoridation issue, for example, with the paper of Grandjean & Landrigan (2014) which is continually used by anti-fluoride campaigners (see Repeating bad science on fluoride). This is a secondary effect where the poor quality research that is selected, translated and published in a poor quality journal like Fluoride can then make its way into more reputable journals (like The Lancet) without any further evidence. Adding to the skewing of the available scientific literature.

And all of this provides ammunition to the unscrupulous ideologically motivated campaigners. Critical assessment of the research is the last thing on their minds and they are certainly not in  the habit of even reading, let alone critically understanding, the papers they promote in  their arguments.

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14 responses to “Cultural and ideological bias in scientific literature reviews

  1. These points are important ones. I differ only one issue. The publication Fluoride should be referred to as a magazine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In the past I was able to think in French and German, passable in several other European languages but having to think in English.

    There is a **** of a lot of literature in German that supports homeopathy. Unfortunately (for supporters of CAM) it’s been as poor as the literature in English. It still doesn’t demonstrate that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo level.

    Edzard Ernst confirms that.

    I haven’t bothered reading the German literature of other forms of CAM, but suspect it would be the same.

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  3. Picker22,

    I agree. “Fluoride” is devoted to ideological beliefs rather than science.

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  4. Here’s one Chinese paper which claims increasing dental decay for child fluoride intake of greater than 3.32 mg per day. http://www.cnki.com.cn/Article/CJFDTOTAL-NJYY200901008.htm

    Thanks for pointing me to Mercola, Ken. Mercola says they don’t fluoridate in China, they are always trying to reduce fluoride.

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  5. You are correct, but there is no easy solution. And the number of low quality journals in all facets of science is increasing; some will publish anything, including deliberate gibberish. That some poor/bad science articles in low quality journals find their way to reputable publications is a continuing problem, but one that vigilance and good editors can overcome, for the most part. We shouldn’t give up on the maxim that good science publication is (mostly) self regulating.
    I too learned German and Russian – I cannot remember a word of them, and never used them – perhaps that was delinquent on my part, but there you have it.
    Nowadays there are simply too many publications to sift through in English let alone any other language (this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but one we in the science community are all partly responsible for). Perhaps we should find people who can be given the task of searching the ‘other’ literature.
    The other problem is that organisations like FAN will always find a publication somewhere that suits their purpose, and if one doesn’t exist they will create it. This is nothing new. Stephen J Gould has, in his excellent “The Mismeasure of Man” shown that both unconscious and deliberate bias (even fraud) was common in early 19thC and 20thC debates about intelligence and race. We see today the same thing in Climate Change debates (especially on the denier side), and in the Genetically modified Organisms debate. And let’s not get started on the Creationists. Evolution deniers frequently misconstrue or deliberately take out of context scientific data to suit their ideology.

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  6. Stuartg wrote: “I agree. “Fluoride” is devoted to ideological beliefs rather than science.”

    Probably some hypotheses.

    There is also a journal called “Medical Hypotheses,” in which scientists can think aloud to others without peer review. And it is indexed in the main stream indexes.

    Though when someone asked about distinguishing AIDS symptoms themselves from the side effects of the drugs used to treat AIDS, I think, then someone got annoyed and the editor got removed since he refused to intervene.

    I maintain that without places to share unconfirmed ideas that “science” is likely to get stuck in concrete in the fashion I noted on another comment. Of course reinforced by shoddy review articles as I said, which are done by interested parties.

    “Fluoride” may be shut out of the main stream indexes (other than Google Scholar?) but cannot _all_ be dismissed in your two-valued all or nothing fashion.

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  7. “Fluoride” isn’t shut out, it has an editorial policy and track record of published embarrassments and advocacy driven low standards that have failed to make even today’s low bar for effective peer review.

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  8. Considering the amazing progress of science in our modern world I think Brian is letting his anti-science biases loose by implying that science is “stuck in concrete

    .” In fact Biran’s behaviour here, especially on the issue of CWF, demonstrates that it his mind that is “stuck in concrete.”

    Fluoride is not “shut out” of any indexes. It just doesn’t meet the specified standards required for inclusion (Google Scholar has no such standards). The organisation behind it is such a Micky Mouse outfit (registered as a charity in NZ) it seems unable to provide any of the minimum standards which makes it such a frustrating journal to search and cite.

    Neither does that publication offer a place to share “unconfirmed ideas.” It doesn’t claim to. It attempts to present itself as a credible scientific journal but really only provides an easy place for publication of poor quality work.

    In practice there are plenty of appropriate fora for presentation and discussion of speculation (not journals – they don’t provide the immediacy required). These places will of also be places where such ideas are critiqued (sometimes ridiculed – scientists being human) which can offend some of the initiators of unconfirmed ideas. In practice I have always found the best way forward is to test unconfirmed ideas in practical ways.

    .

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  9. Ken wrote: “Considering the amazing progress of science in our modern world”

    I gave some meanings for the word, “science,” so please could you give your meaning in that context, Ken.

    Science 1: a method of investigation
    Science 2: a product deriving from the ideas of science 1.
    Science 3: a point in science 1 frozen in concrete and used as a basis for getting away with marketing stuff.

    “” In fact Biran’s behaviour here, especially on the issue of CWF, demonstrates that it his mind that is “stuck in concrete.” ”

    Do you think the way Nigeria rid itself of ebola was scientific or Luddite? Should they have let the contacts continue and the disease spread so that “science” could prove itself with vaccines?

    My mind is not stuck, I am the one looking for a better future, rugby &c, and the whole picture, and interaction of nutrients, not just the denial of “no one has proved, so let’s not look.”

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  10. Ken wrote: “Considering the amazing progress of science in our modern world”
    Toad of Toad Hall, Ken.

    Can you avoid Mosquitoes modifying your genes?

    Scientists getting ready their apologies: “We could never have foreseen that at the time.”

    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/CRISPR_too_fast_for_comfort.php

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  11. “Can you avoid mosquitoes modifying your genes?”

    Dunno, but they sure made a mess of Amiens😉

    Liked by 1 person

  12. If these new genetically modified mosquitoes are used for warfare, or whatever Stuartg’s inference from those wartime bomber aircraft is, I suggest it will be more like chlorine gas which can blow back on you if the wind changes.

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  13. No inferences, Brian. Just delight in the English language.

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