Peddling ‘scientific’ news…

Posted on December 13, 2010


Peter: ” Hey Professor, how come scientific ‘truths’ come and go like women’s fashions – Vitamin C is in, then vitamin C is out, then vitamin E is in, then vitamin E is our, then vitamin D is in, then vitamin D is out.  How come? Science is supposed to be out most trusted news service?”

Professor Wiggly: ” I can understand your confusion. There are four main reasons why scientific truths come and go or shrink: 1) the future is uncertain – we haven’t been there. So we build imaginary bridges constructed on the basis of past experience, beliefs and biases.  2) our past experience may or may not provide a reliable basis for predicting the future – it’s often limited. We mary someone on the basis of limited experience, drugs are marketed on the basis of trials or experiments with a limited number of people for short periods. 3) Some scientists buy into the new theory early in the game and push it – cherry pick positive evidence and discount negative evidence. 4) drug companies are in the business of making money – they market their new products, not only to the public but to scientists and the medical profession.”

Jenny: ” How can drug companies influence medical scientists?”

Professor Wiggly: ” They provide needed research grants – and to some extent those who pay the piper calls the tune. For instance: ‘Journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry”, wrote Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, in March 2004 [1]. In the same year, Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, lambasted the industry for becoming “primarily a marketing machine” and co-opting “every institution that might stand in its way” (May 2005 Issue of PLoS Medicine). Scientists never have enough research money – scientists are human, they follow  the money – the drug companies ‘reward’ those producing results supporting their pet drugs, help publish their findings, give them more research grants,. pay them for writing articles  …. Most medical scientists aren’t crooks, most of them ‘believe’ that the work they do is sound … but the future is uncertain, the evidence the scientists collect is incomplete and conflicting. Remember Herb Simon’s Nobel Prize winning mantra : no conclusions without emotionally anchored assumptions. It’s nice to have a drug company support and reward friendly conclusions.”

Peter: “OK so some (many?) scientists walk into the future on bridges funded by drug companies. If the drug research grants are cancelled  the bridge falls down, so to avoid this the scientists – consciously or unconsciously – keep feeding the drug company the kind of news the company want’s to hear, the kind of news that sells their drug, the kind that keeps research grants flowing to the scientists, the grants that keep extending the bridge into the future.”

Jenny: “Also, I heard that busy doctors rely on the drug company salesmen to provide them  with ‘scientific information’ – with positive evidence extolling the curative effects of  the drugs their selling – obviously not an unbiased source of information.”

Professor Wiggly: “Yes, biased or incomplete information is one reason that drug fads come and go. Another is that’s no one knows the long-term effects of some drugs on some people. Early drug trials on a relatively small sample  of people may yield positive results. But know one the long-term effects, it may take years to discover that a given drug has bad or even lethal effects on some people. Look at how long it took to link smoking and cancer. So it’s not just that drug companies may put a positive spin on their new products. Drugs come and go because their effects can differ radically, not only over time, but because they produce different effects in different people. The future is uncertain, we travel on imaginary bridges built on hopes, biases, incomplete and conflicting information – much of that information  is provided by those with a vested interest in influencing your behavior – not only politicians  and car  salesmen, but drug companies and some of their ‘scientists.”

Jenny: ” So the old adage holds – those who pay the piper influence the tune, whether it’s a newspaper publisher influencing ‘the news’, a drug company influencing medical researchers and practitioners, or  government or private granting agency providing  research money only to those scientists working on hit parade theories, using hit parade methods. Those working on unpopular theories  (bridges) needn’t apply?

Professor Wiggly: ” Recall, the future is uncertain. There are no guaranteed theories or methods. As Simon  says – no conclusions without emotionally anchored assumptions, without trusted imaginary bridges. Politicians, car companies, drug companies, scientists are all selling bridges. Science is our most trusted news service, not because they  always ‘get it right’, but because they provide some resources to some scientists criticizing hit parade theories, and offering alternatives.”

Posted in: Sciencing