by Steven Lubet
Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, where he specializes in professional responsibility and ethics.
When last we encountered Prof. Michael Sharpe, he was giving a secret speech about ME/CFS at Oxford University’s St Cross College. Titled a “Special Ethics Seminar,” Sharpe’s presentation was closed to the public, in contrast to similar lectures in the same series, and neither Sharpe nor the college administrators responded to my request for information about his subject matter. Based on the posted abstract, however, we do know that Sharpe compared his critics – meaning those who reject the PACE trial’s biopsychosocial theory of ME/CFS – to climate change deniers, while complaining about what he called “the coordinated harassment of researchers.”
Sharpe deploys an unusually expansive definition of “harassment,” which seemingly includes emails, freedom of information requests, and most notably “the publication of comments on numerous blogs.” Regarding the latter, he no doubt had in mind David Tuller, whose scrupulously researched investigative journalism, published on this site and elsewhere, has shown the flaws and ultimately discredited the conclusions of the PACE trial (of which Sharpe was a principal investigator).
Now Sharpe has apparently learned of Tuller’s current crowdfunding efforts which would, if successful, finance another year of his work. Sharpe first complained on Twitter about being “up against” Tuller’s investigations, and followed up by challenging his ethics:
“Do you think there may be a conflict of interest in funding someone to express a particular ‘scientific’ view?”
“Conflict of interest” is a serious accusation, but in this case it is unfounded, as I will explain below.
First, Sharpe makes the unsupported assumption that the contributors to Tuller’s work – of whom there have now been over 1500 in two rounds–have commissioned him to express “a particular ‘scientific’ view” (the scare quotes are Sharpe’s). If anything, however, the contributors’ interest is in continuing the critical examination of ME/CFS studies, wherever that may lead. Tuller has a track record, of course, of exposing flawed research, which his contributors want him to continue, but that does not constitute a scientific view about other studies that he has not yet reviewed. Speaking as a contributor myself, my only interest is in identifying valid ME/CFS research. Period.
Second, an established point of view does not constitute a conflict of interest, but rather an indication of thoughtfulness. An open mind does not require a blank one. Moreover, Tuller’s work to date on ME/CFS is well known, transparent, and – as professional ethicists put it – fully disclosed, which would be sufficient to cure such a diffuse conflict if it actually existed.
Third, although this should have been obvious, Tuller is a journalist, and it is perfectly acceptable for him to seek funding for a targeted investigation. Journalists routinely set out to investigate institutions such as government, sports, education, or religion, and medicine – including ME/CFS – is no different.
Finally, and this should have been even more obvious, the entire structure of scientific and medical research depends upon attempts at “falsification.” It is therefore no conflict of interest to fund an attempt to test the validity of a particular trial, treatment, or theory. Far from objecting to Tuller’s investigations, Sharpe should welcome them.
I have spent over forty years researching, writing about, and teaching professional ethics at American universities, so I believe I can say with certainty and some authority that Sharpe’s charge against Tuller is completely groundless. I would welcome an opportunity to engage Prof. Sharpe further on this issue, or on professionalism generally, especially if he would be willing to share the text of his “Special Ethics Seminar.”