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Hiding Behind “Transparency”

Trying to discredit research by calling ethical treatment of human subjects "secret science."

August 29, 2018
 
 

There are some twisty ways to use words to delegitimize science that might interfere with your policy goals. This one, recently reported in The New York Times, is a nice riff on “transparency.” Long-term epidemiological studies (or any other kinds of studies that protect human subjects’ confidentiality) are now called “secret science.”

Isn’t that a great phrase? It sounds so sinister. Scott Pruitt, booted from office for being swampier than the swamp, made a point of saying he was in favor of strengthening science by requiring “underlying data” to be made public so it can be replicated.

That’s great – in theory. Open data is a good thing. But human subjects research demands some protections for avoiding the identification of individuals. A statement from a handful of prominent science journals spells it out:

Data sharing is a feature that contributes to the robustness of published scientific results. Many peer-reviewed scientific journals have recently adopted policies that support data sharing, consistent with the Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) standards. These standards, however, recognize the array of workflows across scientific fields and make the case for data sharing at different levels of stringency; in not every case can all data be fully shared. Exceptional circumstances, where data cannot be shared openly with all, include data sets featuring personal identifiers.

This is not about replication. This is not about making sure that public funds for scientific research is spent responsibly. It’s about discouraging studies that threaten the industries that the government favors (and is favored by).

Kind of ironic. There was a big pitch in 2015 by Republican legislators for transparency in data on climate science hoping to discredit it. That didn’t work. So the EPA removed climate information from its website. That’s what this version of “transparency” is – a slogan to discredit results you don’t like, even as you remove information that doesn’t support the wishes of your corporate funders.

Transparency is not something this administration is known for as it sets records for censoring information, wants to rush a Supreme Court nomination through while records are still being sought, and demands that public servants sign unconstitutional non-disclosure agreements.

There’s no doubt that we have plenty of ethical and technical issues to resolve when it comes to sharing data sets involving human subjects. We want research to be replicable. We want it to be reusable in ways that advance knowledge. We need to protect the medical and other personal information of subjects and make sure we don't simply strip personally identifying data but leave behind enough clues to reidentify subjects. All of that is important. But invoking “transparency” as a trap-door lever for limiting the kinds of scientific research that might protect humans rather than corporate interests is . . . well, these days, unfortunately, it’s perfectly predictable Newspeak.

 

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