25 September 2012

Ben Goldacre takes on Big, Bad Pharma

Doctor and science writer Ben Goldacre has a new book, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, that exposes in meticulous detail what many of us already suspect: pharmaceutical companies fudge the results of their drug trials in order to sell drugs that don’t work, or that are actually harmful. The cynics are right, though it would give them little satisfaction to learn the depressing extent of Big Pharma’s corruption.

The Guardian has published an extract from Bad Pharma, which contains this passage:

Because researchers are free to bury any result they please, patients are exposed to harm on a staggering scale throughout the whole of medicine. Doctors can have no idea about the true effects of the treatments they give. Does this drug really work best, or have I simply been deprived of half the data? No one can tell. Is this expensive drug worth the money, or has the data simply been massaged? No one can tell. Will this drug kill patients? Is there any evidence that it's dangerous? No one can tell. This is a bizarre situation to arise in medicine, a discipline in which everything is supposed to be based on evidence.

Proponents of ‘alternative’ medicine and other New Age quackery will be quick to pounce. They will feel vindicated for their distrust of modern drugs and the corrupt system that makes and markets them. Goldacre’s findings may prove Big Pharma’s critics right about its unethical practices, but these critics commit the logical fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi, or irrelevant conclusion, if they think that Big Pharma’s unethical actions prove the efficacy of ‘alternative’ medicine. They don’t. What they do show is that more scientific skepticism and rigour is needed, not less. The fact that Big Pharma is largely a corrupt industry that puts profits before patients doesn’t mean that homeopathy works, or that vaccines cause autism.

Goldacre is certainly not an ally of the quacks. In his previous book, Bad Science, he debunked pseudoscientific claims about ‘alternative’ medicine, vaccines and consumer products, and also criticised the way that the media misrepresents science, thereby misinforming the public. I highly recommend it as a much needed corrective to the misconceptions and false beliefs that we all have about health matters. And Goldacre is an engaging writer, leavening his statistical analysis with vivid anecdotes and passionate arguments. His new book will no doubt fulfill a similar purpose; to wake up readers with a splash of cold, hard facts, however unpleasant it may be, and to propose solutions to a chronic and widespread problem that affects us all.


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