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The Exxon Factor

Reputations can carry weight over supporting data

An organization’s reputation alone can convince scientists its research is valuable – even without supporting data, says U of T geologist Andrew Miall.

Prof. Miall and McMaster University sociology professor Charlene Miall call this phenomenon the Exxon factor because, in the 1970s, a scientist from the U.S. oil giant (now Exxon Mobil) proposed a new model for oil exploration that was accepted at face value by the scientific community, without data or critical analysis.

The model argued that sea-level changes and the deposition of sedimentary rock followed the same pattern worldwide. Although Exxon has never released any supporting data, geologists seemed to accept that such confirmation existed. “Everyone just assumed that because it was Exxon, the model had to be right even though no one had seen any proof,” says Miall.

The finding has important implications for government policies, he says, as agencies approving new products for public consumption may be influenced by a company’s reputation and funding rather than by the validity of its scientific research.

The researchers conducted interviews with company insiders and other petroleum research scientists. They also tracked the acceptance processes of the Exxon model in academic journals and petroleum research publications. Until recently, many scientists unquestioningly accepted the Exxon research based on the company’s reputation and large-scale research facilities, even though it has never released supporting data. “The Exxon factor shows that reputations can carry weight over empirical data,” says Miall.

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