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The power of the financiers' influence is well known. This is the reason why - just to give an example - several medical studies have a section titled "Conflicts of interest" where the article's authors usually specify whether they have or not any professional or economic connection to the industry that the article is related too.

However, many other influences go undercover. Sugar, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries play a big role in influencing what science has to say on a sensitive topic1,2,3.

The meat industry has published several scientific articles in order to intervene in the body of medical knowledge about foods and diseases. The strategy is obvious: when there are several articles saying different things, the "findings are thus inconsistent" - to use a popular expression of the scientific literature - and "more research is needed". Meanwhile no guilty party is found and the business goes on.

With this in mind it would be useful to know when the results of a study are genuine, and when they might have been manipulated in order to please the interests of the financiers. Applied to the daily life of vegetarians and vegans, this would help to make one's own opinion about the contents of some article regarding medicine, environmental pollution, greenhouse gases emissions, etc, and to practice more effective outreach. So, how can we find out when a study is sponsored by the meat industry?

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    On the same note, how would you spot that a study is (ok maybe not sponsored, but) influence by veganism? – nobe4 Feb 23 '17 at 8:58
  • It would be awesome if there was something like the tools for tracking political donations, but for researchers. – nloewen Feb 23 '17 at 16:18
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I think this question is part of the bigger question: "How to find out who / what organization funded a study / research?". If a meat producer or organization is behind a study, most probably the results will be biased towards what is convenient for it.

So, the more important issue is to spot biased studies.

Since any study requires money to be made, funding bias may be a concern. Misconduct is rarely the cause, but other more subtle causes will bias the results, such as publication bias or selection bias. This type of cause often make the study/research appear as very professional and convincing, as only those with some statistics and/or research background will be able to understand the flaws.

Coming back to your question, I think one may use the following criteria in evaluating how biased a study may be:

  1. Disclosure of funding sources - is a good indicator to be used in bias assessment (source)

  2. Journal reputation - the reputation of the journal publishing the research may help in quality assessment. Typically, high reputation journals will avoid publishing low quality (high-biased) studies.

  3. Very simple conclusion - most contexts deal with hard to understand phenomena. E.g. effect of red meat consumption. This article seems quite biased to me, because it concentrates on the health benefits minimizing the side effects. However, this article is balanced in dealing with both positive and negative effects.

  4. Research effort - an article/study that goes into many aspects of the problem (especially the one opposite to the conclusion) is less likely to be biased. I find this article to be such a case.

  5. Background information - researchers academic background, how they are seen by their peers, study citations and other academic indicators may help in assessment of research quality

  6. "findings are thus inconsistent" - I find that such a conclusion is the most appropriate in most cases. It shows a good modesty that we do not really know everything about something and further research is required. However, two things should come with such a conclusion:

    • a clear illustrations of pros and cons with relevant references, so that one can have an informed decision: assumes the cons wile pursuing the pros (e.g. takes the risk of developing forms of cancers while eating the read meat, while aiming for B12, Iron etc.)

    • how we deal with it. One way is to use the precautionary principle ("an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking that action.") and this is quite popular within the European Union. For our red meat eating example, it means: I would better avoid eating red meat because they could not prove it is not harmful (higher risk of developing some forms of cancer is quite a health risk).

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I think there is an more broad problem than having just a "genuine" stamp on a study. How can you trust anything you read and hear?

You could trust anything you read and take the first article that says something and think "OK they spend time writing this, it must be true". Problem, it's rarely that simple.

Even for genuine studies, article, the author can be influenced for various reasons that are not necessarily bad. You just need to not trust fully what you read, but to think about it, to compare different sources. The more you read, the clearer vision of the subject you will have.

In the end I'd not consider anything a source of truth, but more another drop of knowledge and insight in your search. Then, with all data/science you have in mind you can make up your own decisions.

Some examples to illustrate:

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UROxRLbVils: In this video, there is a lot of information from a person that defends veganism. How can you trust what he says? How can you be sure he's not making things up?

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rNY7xKyGCQ: This doctor probably (because he's a doctor) knows a lot about his subject, and he gives a lot of details. And he has more information on his website... But what if it was a scam? How would you know that?

I'd recommend: read as much as possible, make up your mind with what you know, and stay open.

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    I really like the thought process behind this. People so often defer to the judgment of the internet or any other credible-sounding source, rather than listening to a number of points of view and then combining that with their own intuition to reach a decision. Even an accepted answer on a popular Q&A site could be wrong... wait, never mind, forget I said that. – David S Feb 23 '17 at 19:23
  • @DavidS - it's normal to have wrong or not accurate anymore accepted answers on SE network. This happens even for precise questions like those on SO dealing with programming issues. And this is normal: every field evolves and what is true now, it will not be tomorrow or things get complicated (fuzzy). – Alexei Feb 25 '17 at 7:23
  • @Alexei That's a good point, information on the internet can become inaccurate over five or ten years quite easily. Of course I was mostly just teasing about Q&A sites being potentially wrong. – David S Feb 25 '17 at 21:54
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In the end, do your research.

There's a lot of fake news going around, even fake news on fake news. If you hear that a researcher is a shill for the meat industry, or that a paper was 'funded by the meat industry', look for more citations, dig into the organization(s) funding the research, and look at the past publications for the researcher. Find outlets you trust, and see what they have to say. There's no easy way to determine something like this. If you want to ensure you're getting good information, it takes a little bit of legwork.

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