Monday, October 19, 2015


So the Late/Afternoon/Early Evening of the Long Knives has been and gone. One lot of people for whom we weren't allowed to vote has been replaced - a few gaps not withstanding - by another lot of people for whom we were not allowed to vote. Shall we give a heartfelt Yay For ECF Democracy! and get on with our lives?

Jump to 1 hour 37 minutes for the bit that’s relevant to us today

Back to chess and dementia it is. Enough with the absence of evidence - DG XXXII: Election Day; DG XXXI: 'many scientists’, many claims - for the moment. Let’s talk about a positive development for a change: the announcement during the Sinquefield Cup live stream back in August that Rex Sinquefield is sponsoring a research proposal

to look at the effects of chess and its ability to forestall Alzheimer’s and dementia.*

A person closely associated with x is funding a study to find out whether x has a particular health benefit? Do we have a conflict of interest here? Yes, obviously. Is it a problem? No, not necessarily.

It all depends on whether / how you handle your conflicting interests - DG XXVI: Disclosure. To borrow once again from Tracey Brown’s Sense About Science lecture,

… it doesn’t matter that people who want to promote evidence have motives. It doesn’t matter until those things - evidence and motives - pull in opposite directions …
see DG XXX: The Ugly Truth or DG XXXII: Election Day for the full speech

There are many interesting questions that spring to mind about this research proposal. What exactly is the hypothesis? How exactly will they test it? What long will the project run? How will they report the results?

What there isn’t, I feel, is any reason at all to assume that the conflicts of interest involved won’t be handled appropriately. No reason to think that the Sinquefield research project isn’t a hugely positive development.

Despite Rex’s statement from May 2013?

“I love chess because it’s so beautiful,” he says. “It’s stimulating and so demanding. And the fact that it is one of four things that stave of dementia — chess, bridge, foreign language, and playing music – it’s good for me, too!”

No, precisely because of it.

Evidence is always better than unsubstantiated assertion. Even when that assertion comes from a billionaire who funds stuff that we quite like.

Chess and Dementia Index

* I’m grateful to Paul Cooksey (via the possibly not much longer for this world ECF Forum) and Phille from in the comments box on DG XXVI: Disclosure for bringing this to my attention.
I was reminded that I hadn’t yet mentioned the Sinquefield project by Paul’s mention of it on the second ECF Forum chess and dementia thread.


Jonathan B said...

More on this next week. More on the publication of research generally, that is.

AngusF said...

Might a general problem with funding and conflicts of interest be that those who fund will likely be more inclined to fund in the expectation of getting results they want to get? If an unwanted result is thought likely or possible then it's less likely research will be funded?

Andrew Gelman said...


These concerns are real. But the money and resources have to come from somewhere, and it stands to reason that the people who want to support such research will likely have strong opinions and hopes about the outcome of the research. So I think the best was to proceed is to get on with it, to be transparent about funding and about research methods, and as much as possible to structure incentives to avoid incentives for bias. One idea that's been floated is for scientific journals to accept or reject papers based on the research design. Then, if the paper is accepted for publication, the results will be published whether or not they are supporting any particular theory.

Anonymous said...

The Tracey Brown talk was very good but I understand that critics like George Monbiot have claimed that Sense About Science is basically a pro-GMO lobby group. Some of its funding comes from pharmaceutical companies. Earlier this year it promoted and was a signatory to an open letter to the Scottish Government asking for it to reconsider its ban on GM crops.