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Research on the Web

Kevin Drum, Political Animal (Washington Monthly)
The world is full of advice on how to do research. There’s general advice that applies to research of any kind. There’s particular advice for particular fields. There’s advice that applies to archival research and advice that applies to field research. There’s advice for novices and advice for graduate students.

But how about bloggers doing research on the web? Here are five pieces of advice for them. Enjoy.

1. If you use Google (and who doesn’t?) don’t use the default page. Use the Advanced Search page instead …

2. Whenever you read something by someone you don’t know, Google ’em. Find out what axe they have to grind. …

3. If you’re writing about a specific topic that you’re not that familiar with, take a minute and find an article that provides a quick outline of the general subject area. Even a modest 60-second familiarity with the lay of the land can save you a lot of grief and keep you from making an idiot of yourself.

4. Speaking of which, use Wikipedia …

5. And while we’re on the subject, always click the link. The web makes checking sources so easy that there’s no excuse for failing to at least skim the primary links in an article. Click, click, click!
(17 February 2008)

The Weinberg proposal
A scientific consulting firm says that it aids companies in trouble, but critics say that it manufactures uncertainty and undermines science.

Paul D. Thacker, Environmental Science & Technology
… experts contend that the document provides one of the clearest examples they have seen to illustrate how consulting firms help industries deal with scientific questions about the safety or health consequences of their products. These firms develop legal defense campaigns, ostensibly based on science, to sway juries during trials, to counteract potential regulatory oversight, and to influence the public’s view about the health effects of products. Critics such as David Michaels, chair of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at George Washington University, charge that these groups “manufacture uncertainty”-a term Michaels coined-in order to prevent or delay regulations and civil lawsuits.

…Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a documenter of the scientific battles over tobacco smoking, backs up vom Saal’s assertion that this is an old approach. Glantz is a coauthor of the book The Cigarette Papers and has written numerous peer-reviewed studies on the tobacco industry, which are based on documents contained in the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. This library is an online database of internal company papers obtained as part of the final U.S. court settlement with Big Tobacco in the 1990s.

“Basically, the tobacco companies set up this huge sub rosa network of scientists and experts around the world who were paid through the tobacco lawyers to give lectures contesting the evidence on secondhand smoke-to show up at hearings; to, in some cases, lobby; to publish articles,” he says. Although the effort was meant to undermine the science labeling passive smoke a health risk, he says the tactics were very similar to what is contained in the Weinberg proposal.

…“People in the scientific community don’t want to hear about this,” says vom Saal. “When you point out corruption, it makes scientists uncomfortable.”

But Glantz has studied Big Tobacco’s impact on his profession for more than a decade, and he sees a much bigger problem looming for science. As the federal government cuts back on funding for research, scientists are now forced to rely more and more on financial assistance from corporations; this raises troubling questions about whether the results from these studies will be impartial and objective or favorable to the companies that paid for them.

“The whole scientific enterprise is being distorted by these corporate interests,” Glantz says. “That’s why it is so important that we have a healthy academic community, to be a voice that isn’t being controlled.”
(22 February 2008)