Hummers vs. Hybrids Redux: On Corporate Research

The entry that I posted on research challenging the idea that Hummers are worse for the environment than hybrids has sparked a great deal of contreversy and criticism. I cannot say that I find this entirely surprising.

There have been several very reasonable criticisms related their failure to publish their methods and their assumption that hybrids will have a significantly shorter operating life than Hummers. (They assert that the average operating life of a Hummer is 300,000 miles while the average operating life of a Prius is 100,000 miles.) Specifically with respect to the operating life, even if we grant that is true now, it is unlikely to remain so as the quality of the technology improves.

I posted this article with the understanding that it would be provocative. While I don't agree with everything it says, I do agree with at least the core proposition that when we consider the energy cost of a vehicle, we need to consider production and destruction as well as gas mileage.

What I find puzzling is the highly negative response as to the origin of the research: CNW Marketing Research. People have taken issue with me for posting corporate research, suggesting that I should have instead dismissed it out of hand.

JP wrote:

You would do well to be somewhat more skeptical of work put out by a marketing firm...Hummmm why would a marketing firm that has GM as a client produce a report that would promote large GM SUVs at the expense of Japanese imports? You don't need expertise in the auto industry to see through this one.

Quitter wrote:

You need a better bullshit detector. This does not even pass the smell test.

Here are some initial problems after a cursory glance-over (I'll read it more thoroughly once I'm done working)

1. This is a marketing agency, not a peer reviewed journal.
2. The methodology is hidden, when you try to track it down they say their sources of data were or not for sale and are behind subscription-based logins.

I would like to make clear that I unwilling to dismiss so-called corporate research out of hand for several reasons.

  • First, I know several people who do research in the private sector who I consider of the highest integrity. They believe sincerely that they are contributing to the furtherance of science, and perhaps all the more because while I scramble at useless hypothesis they are creating a product that helps the public directly.
  • Second, we tend to reify corporations into huge monstrousities when they are fundamentally financial abstractions. Corporations have no life aside from the people in them. People can be good or bad. We should judge people by their actions.
  • Third, the bright line between academic and private research is not nearly so bright as you would think. In engineering, but increasingly in biology as well, research is being increasingly funded by private firms. Are we going to dismiss all of this out of hand as well?
  • Finally, scientists in the academic world have shown themselves of late to be just as susceptible to bias. The important issue is not the origin of their research but rather that they have held it to the same standards.

In short, I do not believe the world so cleanly divided as between corporate sellouts of limited ethics and pristine academicians.
I will not dismiss corporate or marketing research out of hand; rather I think it deserves a fair hearing like everything else.

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Well put. Especially the final point "Finally, scientists in ...".

Hard to give it a fair hearing when so much of it is proprietary.

By Evil Monkey (not verified) on 25 Jul 2006 #permalink

Two continuing problems.

One, marketing research is different then corporate research and the two should not be conflated. We're not talking about Roche here, we're talking about a psuedo-scientific report written by a journalist with a hidden method section. This is the blind leading the blind. I love papers from scientists at Dharmacon on siRNA, and other industry scientists have really broken some major stories in the top journals. I have little problem with that, until it comes to research that directly benefits a specific product or is designed to increase market share of some drug. Then I become rapidly suspicious of everything. Marketing firms are doing the same thing, publishing research to help or justify the expansion of market share of some product (with exceptions like Consumer Reports who are notably independent). The authors claim independence in this report, but I have my doubts.

Two, the report was just written in the most retarded fashion. It was embarrassing. A disjointed, unclear, disorganized and hard to follow vomiting-up of data tables mixed with allusions to methods and data acquisition.

I'd also point out that the point you make and JP likes, that bias is found in academic science in many instances, this is especially true when there is a profit-motive, or when marketing seems to be an objective of the science.

That's what I'm suspicious of, the profit-motive, whether it's academic or corporate, when you see the beneficiary of a scientific study is a specific corporation or group you have to turn the bias detectors up extra high.

There's some good reading this week over at PLoS Medicine this month and previously with their focus on disease mongering. I'm rapidly finding PLoS articles among my favorites, not just their attacks on the dangers of marketing's influence on science, but their really excellent choice in publications from basic research fields. They often choose very challenging and controversial papers that probably wouldn't get much hearing elsewhere, but are consistently of excellent quality.

While dismissing corporate research completely throws away the work of some bright people, accepting its conclusions without a due amount of skepticism is a little naive. If a PR company in GM's employ did this study and concluded that GMs products were the worst investment from an environmental standpoint because they are big, inefficient, and some of the money goes to lobbying for reducing standards, do you think we would have seen that report? While non-corporate scientists sometimes have other motives, corporate scientists always do. A good corporate scientist is willing to have his work directed and filtered by the company shareholders for a little more money than his non-corporate brethren.

When a coporate interest is served by a 'research report' they had better be prepared to demonstrate the validity of that work. The report in question failed badly in that regard. There was no proper accounting of methodology and the model in question was not applied in a manner that can be defended (assume a 300,000 average mile lifetime for a Hummer, please). Can work of this caliber be easily published in an academic journal? Not in the journals that I read.

Why then would this report be generated? It is produced to serve the interest of a given corporation. Corporations exist and operate to advance the financial interests of their shareholders (owners). It does not matter who is employed by a corporation, if they do not serve the interest of the shareholders, they will not be employed.

This is done because it works. This 'research' has been flogged on a variety of media, most journalists that have reported it up cannot see the errors, they simply parrot the findings. It is helpful that the findings are difficult to believe, that makes it newsworthy. In the end, the seed is planted that the SUV is environmentally friendly and that hybrids are not, mission accomplished.

For the record, the first reply in this thread is not from the JP that replied to your original post. I was the author of the reply to the first post and the author of reply number six to this post. I will let you speculate on why someone would use the same identifier. I did not reply to your comment on "Finally, scientists in the..." because there is no specific example. The blanket that has been cast is very wide indeed and not something that I would agree with.