Michael Collins (here’s a link but I don’t know the original source) picked up on my article about statistics and the cigarette companies, which mentioned a consulting job of famed Stanford statistician Ingram Olkin, and noticed that Olkin was recently in the news as a coauthor of a report on organic food:
A widely publicized study claiming that there is no demonstrated difference in nutritional value between organically and conventionally grown foods just appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Broad mainstream media coverage produced headlines like Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce. The media failed to mention one point that may be of major interest. . . . The article co-author with recognized expertise in meta-analysis, Ingram Olkin, applied for a grant from Council of Tobacco Research (CTR) in 1976. . . . Olkin applied to the CTR to conduct a project on the statistical methods used in the Framingham Heart Study, the landmark project linking cigarette smoking with increased risk of heart disease. . . .
Olkin’s history of being paid to work for the tobacco companies is being used to discredit his current work on organic vegetables.
Is this fair? I don’t know. On one sense, it seems pretty rough to slam a guy based some past consulting job. I’d be pretty annoyed if that were to happen to me.
On the other hand, there’s a symmetry to the accusation. When they hired Olkin, the cigarette companies were, to some extent, buying his reputation as a leading applied statistician. So maybe it’s appropriate for the inference to go the other way: being funded by cigarette companies based on “considerations other than practical scientific merit” can affect one’s reputation as a statistician. Olkin got the $12,000 but now he’s paying for it (a bit).
But this is not a deterministic relation; just ‘cos someone is a distinguished statistician, it doesn’t mean that his cigarette-funded report on the Framingham Heart Study is to be trusted; and just ‘cos someone took cigarette $ to write that report, it doesn’t mean that his other work can’t be trusted.
P.S. Just to be clear: This post is not intended to be an attack on Olkin. Rather, it’s an exploration of the ways in which people use statistical inference in judging someone’s work.