Conflicts of interest writer woman with cash.

Revealing hidden agendas: A crucial skill for critical thinkers

Critical thinking doesn’t require expertise in a particular field. Still, it does hinge on at least one essential requirement when researching topics: questioning conflicts of interest. Before labeling yourself a critical thinker, ensure you’ve mastered this detail.

On a recent trip, my friend and I found ourselves engrossed in a heated discussion about critical thinking – or the lack thereof. As the tradition goes on these trips, we stayed up well past bedtime discussing one particular point: source verification.

I argued that many self-proclaimed critical thinkers neglect the essential steps of verifying the agenda and reliability of the information they consume. To be a true critical thinker, one must verify basic source information to ensure reliability.

My friend, on the other hand, contended that not everyone shares my level of expertise (referring to my scientific experience) and, by extension, cannot be expected to verify every topic thoroughly. In other words, researching every subject would be impractical for non-experts, and relying on experts would be a reasonable approach to acquiring reliable information.

As the night wore on, our heated discussion circled back on itself, with both of us, in essence, unwittingly agreeing. We debated based on two premises: one emphasizing the importance of source verification for critical thinkers and the other acknowledging the practical challenges non-experts face in researching every subject.

In this article, we will explore how both parts of the argument hold validity in their own respects.

Related: See our recent post on how to convince people.

What is a conflict of interest?

In 2014 and 2015, a group of influential scientists emphasized that “attempts to restrict calorie intake over the long term are likely to be ineffective.” According to these scientists, robust scientific evidence suggests that maintaining an active lifestyle and consuming more calories to sustain the energy balance, known as CICO (calories in, calories out), is easier than eating fewer calories.

conflict of interest- CICO: Calories in, calories out.

Their claim opposed the traditional belief of calorie restrictions for weight maintenance and loss and contradicted expert recommendations.

These influential scientists were part of the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit organization later revealed to have received substantial funding from a well-known behemoth, the Coca-Cola Company. They acted as a front group for the conglomerate to sidetrack the discussion around obesity and weight-related diseases.

This story describes one of several instances of conflict of interest, wherein a person or a group stands to gain from opinions and actions taken within their official roles. Conflicts of interest can be more or less transparent, silently shaping our beliefs, decisions, and behaviors, and their outcomes can live long after they’ve been revealed.

For example, you may remember the proposed causative link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines and autism, a story Andrew Wakefield fabricated in 1998. Several scientists have debunked the claim ever since, and the original study was retracted. Later, we discovered Wakefield had received funding from lawyers representing parents pursuing litigation against vaccine manufacturers. A clear case of conflict of interest. Nevertheless, years after the revelations and retraction, some still believe Wakefield’s claims – or at least they fear vaccines more or less implicitly because of them.

Before you start pointing fingers, make sure your hands are clean

Most of us can spot the problems with the Coca-Cola story, retracted vaccine–autism study, and similar scientific malpractices. “Well, yes, of course, I know a numbnut that still believes vaccines cause autism. And he drinks Coke, too!”

However, our critical thinking often diminishes once we try to direct the objective glass toward ourselves or our favorite sources of information. Our abilities to verify and spot potential conflicts of interest also weaken when we consume content supporting our narrative, a concept known as confirmation bias.

It’s easier to be critical of others than to turn the lens of scrutiny on ourselves. This is a common human tendency – to hold others to a higher standard than ourselves. While we may quickly identify flaws and biases in external sources, we might neglect to recognize these issues within our own perspectives and information sources. Admitting our biases and limitations is essential to becoming more effective critical thinkers.

One of the most difficult challenges you’ll face is verifying your sources and information. Whether you consume news from the New York Times, Fox, CNN, The Guardian, BBC, Nature, Science, Le Monde, or that obscure little newspaper most of those mentioned above denounce, always question what they say – and don’t say. Try to continually assess if any conflicts of interest could taint the information (or lack thereof).

You don’t need to know everything

The great ancient philosopher Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Although the quote’s context doesn’t relate to conflicts of interest directly, it does help me bring home the following point: admitting ignorance advances your progress. You must embrace ignorance and start researching to gain true knowledge, skill, and expertise. More often than not, reaching competence requires relying on others’ knowledge and expertise, such as first-hand and second-hand sources.

As you begin researching new topics, you’ll encounter information in various forms and flavors, each varying in accessibility, types of biases, and levels of accuracy. Initially, your understanding may resemble a blank slate devoid of preconceived ideas. Gradually, you’ll progress to more specialized and advanced information, which can exhibit varying degrees of bias and accuracy.

Once you reach a certain proficiency level, you start thinking critically about the content you consume, which includes some source verification – albeit possibly at a basic level. As a bare minimum, a critical thinker with a scientific mindset questions potential conflicts of interest while consuming stories. What are the possible agendas and biases? Who funds the research or news outlet?

Perhaps it goes without saying that transparency varies between organizations and platforms, and finding conflicts of interest can be daunting. For example, scientific journals provide information about potential conflicts of interest or funding sources, often below the reference list or the authors’ affiliations. This transparency approach is driven by ethical considerations and a commitment to maintaining the integrity and credibility of scientific research.

However, most platforms, including newspapers, do not provide their readers with clear funding statements next to their articles. Although newspapers’ transparency policies may differ between platforms, identifying conflicts of interest may be more challenging.

Ways to identify possible conflicts of interest

Luckily, there are strategies you can use to gather more information and evaluate potential conflicts of interest. First, research the media outlet to understand its ownership structure, affiliations, and any known biases. Additionally, you can explore alternative news sources that prioritize transparency and disclose their funding or affiliations. Seeking diverse perspectives and cross-referencing information from multiple sources can help you create a more comprehensive picture. Remember, the responsibility lies with us as critical thinkers to be diligent in our pursuit of reliable information, even in the face of limited transparency.

Let’s delve into practical ways for critical thinkers to identify potential conflicts of interest. By honing your skills in source evaluation and being mindful of biases, you can navigate the complex landscape of information and make more informed judgments. Here are some helpful strategies to consider:

Scrutinize funding sources

Investigate the funding sources behind scientific studies, political campaigns, or news outlets. Look for any financial ties or affiliations that may influence the information presented. Consider whether the funding sources are vested in a particular outcome or narrative.

Assess industry connections

Examine any potential industry connections or affiliations that individuals or organizations may have. Determine if financial or professional relationships could impact their objectivity or bias.

Evaluate disclosure statements

Check if scientific studies, political figures, or news sources provide disclosure statements. These statements should disclose any financial interests, affiliations, or potential biases that could affect their objectivity or credibility. Lack of transparency or incomplete disclosures may be red flags.

Consider professional expertise

Assess the expertise and qualifications of individuals or groups involved in scientific research, political decision-making, or news reporting. Determine if they have a background or expertise directly relevant to the topic. Recognize when individuals lack credibility or have conflicts that could affect their judgment.

Look for consistency

Evaluate scientific studies, political claims, or news stories based on the consistency of evidence. Be cautious if a single study or source contradicts well-established evidence. Independent replication and multiple sources supporting a claim enhance credibility.

Cross-check multiple sources

Verify information by seeking diverse sources and perspectives. Relying on a single source or outlet increases the risk of biases or conflicts of interest.

Investigate media ownership

Examine the ownership of news outlets or media organizations. Determine if there are any potential conflicts of interest based on the political or corporate affiliations of the owners. Media consolidation or bias can influence the content and presentation of news.

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