Can advocacy groups replace independent university researchers?

The rise of fake news is a global problem. The Internet and social media in particular are prone to the spreading of such false information. Developing software that would automatically and accurately detect fake news is extremely difficult. Automatically detecting malicious texts ‘professionally’ written and based on cherry-picked and slightly modified information is even more difficult. Exposing them is a real challenge and requires persistent efforts from experts. In many cases communicating scientific facts, such as research on global warming and vaccination, to the general public is as important as obtaining the facts themselves. Unfortunately, medicine as well as climate change sciences are not the only fields that have to fight ignorance and the spread of cherry-picked or false information by various advocacy and interest groups. I am a traffic psychology researcher and here are my views about advocacy groups entering the research domain in my field.

Traffic psychology research in Finland
Traffic safety research including traffic psychology is experiencing hard times in Finland. It seems traffic safety is no longer a hot (research) topic. In my view, there are several reasons for this. The first relates to the general expectations that oncoming autonomous/automated vehicles will solve all traffic safety problems and, therefore, all our efforts should be focused on developing and accommodating such vehicles. The second relates to the poor status of traffic psychology research applications by scientific foundations, which often treat such applications as too applied and, therefore, unsuitable for their funds. The third reason relates to the even worse status of traffic psychology at Finnish universities. How many times have I heard “Igor, why don’t you find a job in Liikenneturva or Traficom” from my colleagues and superiors at my university? Unfortunately, traffic psychology professorships have not continued after their former and internationally well-recognized holders (i.e., Heikki Summala and Esko Keskinen) retired (‘it belongs to us’ other fields say), which contributed to the collapse of their research groups. Traffic psychology courses are taken away from curriculums (on account of profiling), some researchers got fired (the Big Wheel rolled) and all this has led to a serious lack of expertise in this field at Finnish universities.

Traffic safety and advocacy groups
This lack of expertise has created a situation, a certain vacuum, in which various advocacy and interest groups have entered to spread their own truths. They often engage in debates, especially in social media, with traffic safety workers employed by state-sponsored organizations such as Liikenneturva, whose main role is not to conduct research but rather to operate within strict rules set by various laws. And when I say “engaging in debate” I mean rather obsessive and borderline offensive commenting.

I describe here a very personal experience as a traffic psychology researcher (still at university) with one of such advocacy groups, the Finnish Cyclists’ Federation – Pyöräliitto.

Failing to declare one’s own affiliation with an advocacy group.
My first experience with these advocates goes back to September 2016 when I received an email from Marjut Ollitervo, a Pyöräliitto board member, and at that time also a vice chair of Helsinki Cyclists – HePo. Her email surprised me: “Who has funded Jake Olivier’s visit to University of Helsinki?” Professor Olivier, a friend and colleague of mine, has conducted several important studies, including systematic reviews and meta-analyses, regarding bicycle helmets. He is hated by those who oppose bicycle helmet legislation and promotion. When I asked the emailer who she was and why she would like to know that, she replied: “I am a citizen. I ask this because I am interested in it. So just to be clear, are you refusing to tell me who is financing Jake Olivier’s visit to the University of Helsinki? Is it a secret?” She has never mentioned that she was sitting on the boards of two advocacy groups. I am not sure how many researchers get these kinds of inquiry from ‘random’ citizens; however, my wife, who is currently doing research on the effect of wind turbines on people’s well-being at Turun ammattikorkeakoulu has received an email from someone who criticized her work and who also failed to mention her connection with an organization that opposes wind turbines.

Organizing a kind of ‘scientific’ seminars
Another experience is from last year when I submitted an abstract to VeloFinland organized by Pyöräliitto. They advertised their seminar as “the place to be if you want to learn about new research.” Given that Pyöräliitto opposes the current Finnish bicycle helmet law, I thought they would find our systematic review about risk compensation and bicycle helmets interesting. So I submitted a proposal, which they rejected. It seems the first ever systematic review on the topic they are so passionate about by the only active traffic psychology docent at a Finnish university was below their quality threshold. This was my first ever rejection to a conference or seminar in a research career stretching seventeen years. It should tell us something.

Instead, a Pyöräliitto board member, oh yes, the same one who sent me that email and who, to my knowledge, has no traffic safety research education or experience, had a presentation with the very ambitious title, “Rethinking Traffic Safety.” I wrote about this several times on Twitter and in my email to Pyöräliitto board members last year and I thought that they would learn something. At some point Pyöräliitto even blocked me on Twitter (because I was ‘spamming them’). Later they unblocked me, but at least one of their board members is still blocking me.

Unfortunately, they haven’t learned anything. They have organized the same event again this year and there is even a “call for papers,” among other things inviting researchers to share “their best research…” although they don’t have an independent scientific committee. As I wrote on Twitter, “Let’s say the Flat Earth Society organizes a ‘professional meeting’ but ‘calls for papers’ & invites researchers to submit their ‘best research.’ I wonder whether a university researcher showing that the Earth is not flat would pass the selection process by FES people.”

In my view, Pyöräliitto are misleading their audience and Finnish media. This doesn’t mean some excellent researchers will not present their high quality research, it means each submission will not be judged by its quality by qualified researchers, they will be judged based on whether a few people sitting in Pyöräliitto’s board like them or not. Pyöräliitto will filter what they like and this will be presented to their audience and the Finnish media.

Conducting (own) research
Two years ago, Pyöräliitto conducted a survey and asked Finns what would make them cycle more. Although they often claim that the law is a barrier to cycling, they did not include ‘repealing the current helmet law’ as one of the offered answers to the mentioned question. Any decent researchers would put their hypothesis to the test; however, they did not. Furthermore, I find it surprising that the Ministry of Transport and Communications in one of its publications (p. 38 in Kävelyn ja pyöräilyn edistämisohjelma) mentioned the possibility that Pyöräliitto (together with Pyöräilykuntien verkosto) would organize yearly surveys in order to follow the development of cycling in Finland. Does anyone seriously think that an advocacy group should be in charge of conducting research surveys? Would anyone suggest that Autoliitto should organize similar surveys? Unfortunately, it seems Pyöräliitto has established themselves as a research organization as the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom recently ordered a cycling travel survey from them.

More on research expertise in Pyöräliitto
In their submission to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, when opposing the helmet law, Pyöräliitto wrote, “Helmet use regulation provides an image of cycling as a particularly risky activity, which reduces the attractiveness of cycling. However, cycling is not particularly dangerous compared to, for example, pedestrians, and because of the health benefits as it has been shown that the benefits of cycling exceed the risks 20 times [Hillman M. “Cycling and the Promotion of Health.” Policy Studies Vol. 14, 49-58, 1993)” [my translation].

However, as we showed in our recent preprint, Hillman had not provided “supporting data or even a description of the methods used to derive this ratio.” We also show several other instances where the alleged 20:1 ratio has been used uncritically. It is worrying that poorly evidenced statistics can be so widely accepted and used even in policy making discussions. Cost-benefit analysis is a complex method and scientific community and policy makers should not accept the final result of an oversimplified and never presented calculation. It is unclear whether Pyöräliitto board members had actually read the article they cited because any qualified and impartial reader would notice Hillman had not provided any evidence about the alleged 20:1 ratio. An impartial reader would not cite it in a policy making discussion.

Given the above, I ask: Is Pyöräliitto a research institute (i) with necessary expertise in understanding research and able to critically and impartially assess their quality regardless of whether a particular study supports or conflicts with Pyöräliitto’s goals; (ii) which conducts research following research ethics and good practices, and (iii) organizes seminars with research presentations selected based on their quality?

By sharing this rather personal experience, my aim is not to take a revenge on Pyöräliitto because they did not accept my proposal for their VeloFinland seminar (although I am sure many would interpret it like that). My aim was to point out that filtering scientific evidence does not happen somewhere else, it happens also here in Finland and is not always recognized by the media and the general public.

It is unfortunate that Pyöräliitto, an advocacy group, in a more or less subtle way has entered a research domain in Finland. Although the promotion of cycling is worthwhile because cycling is associated with environmental and health benefits, it should be stressed that a good cause does not always justify the means. We should understand and accept that advocacy groups are advocacy groups and not a source of a balanced, critical and comprehensive overall review of scientific literature. The lack of independent traffic psychology researchers at Finnish universities makes it easier for advocacy groups and ‘experts’ to enter the research domain and establish themselves as a credible research source in public policy discussions.

Author: Igor Radun

Igor Radun is a university researcher, PhD (2009) and docent (2015) in traffic psychology. He completed two post-doc abroad (Chalmers University of Technology 2011-2013, and Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University 2013-2015). He has received a recognition medal (Ansiomitali) for traffic safety work from the Ministry of Transport and Communications in 2019 and twice (2017, 2019) the H. J. Eysenck Memorial Fund Award. He serves as editorial board member in the major journal in his field: Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour. I am on Twitter:

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