Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Big Pharma" and the package-deal fallacy

My post from a couple of days ago about the fraudulent psychic who convinced Latina singer Jenni Rivera's family that she had survived a plane crash (she didn't) elicited a curious comment from a reader.

I had prefaced my comments about Rivera and the psychic with a statement that woo-woo beliefs cause a lot of harm -- and I cited homeopathy as one example.  The commenter ignored the main gist of my post, and leaped upon the homeopathy comment, responding, "Does this (harm) include fraudulent behaviour by clinical scientists who are paid by the big pharmaceutical companies to fudge their data?  Typical double standards by pseudosceptics!"

Well.  I could call "red herring" on this and be done with it, but I thought it might be more interesting to look at the question a little more closely.

First, let me say at the outset that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in corporate law.  I am, however, trained to do biology, and I understand anatomy and physiology pretty well.  And whatever else you might say about most medications, they do, for the most part, what they're intended to do, and we understand how they do it.  To take two examples from my own health: (1) I am currently recovering from a sinus infection, and have been taking amoxicillin; and (2) I have moderate chronic high blood pressure, and am on two medications (nifedipine and hydrochlorothiazide), and I am pleased to report that at my last checkup my blood pressure was a healthy 118/80.  And all three of those drugs have mechanisms of action that are thoroughly researched and well understood.

So, here's the deal.  While "Big Pharma" is composed of a group of huge corporations, which (like all corporations) exist to make money for stockholders, they do have one thing going for them; the drugs they make seem to work pretty well.  It's kind of funny, don't you think?  All the fraudulent, on-the-take clinical scientists fudge their data, and evil old "Big Pharma" continues to churn out medications that have made us one of the overall healthiest societies ever.  We have virtually eradicated childhood infectious diseases because of vaccination; we have nearly eliminated deaths from bacterial infections because of antibiotics; cancer survival rates have improved significantly because of chemotherapy.  I know personally at least a dozen people who owe their lives to "Big Pharma."

Now, of course, the commenter was right in one sense; when corporate interests and the profit motive get mixed up in anything, there is always going to be some degree of corruption.  Human greed is as insidious, and harder to cure, than human disease.  And while the survival rate from most of the ills that have plagued humanity from the get-go has increased, there are a few conditions that have become more common since the advent of modern medicine, for reasons unknown (allergies, asthma, and autism come to mind).  But the idea that because we haven't cured everything, and because there have been some examples of bad science, fudged data, and coverups, all pharmaceuticals should be avoided, is blatant foolishness.  This is the "package-deal fallacy" in a particularly dangerous guise.

Because, after all, what does the alternative medicine crowd propose as a replacement?  Homeopathy (which I beat on frequently enough that the phrase "'nuff said" comes to mind).  "Colorpuncture," about which I wrote last week.  Crystals, smudging, aromatherapy, flower essences, chakra manipulation.  Oh, yeah, and one other one, that I just found out about last week because of a student in my Critical Thinking class: "Auto-Urine Therapy."  Yes, folks, this is exactly what it sounds like; improve your health and cure disease by drinking your own urine.  What's it supposed to do, you might ask?  I know that's what I asked, after I finished gagging.  "This diet minimises toxins and further enhances the power of the immune system. Ojas [the essential energy of the body] is increased and thus the urine contains more valuable biochemicals," the website says.  "Urine can also be used to cleanse the stomach, lungs, sinuses and nasal passages in the Yoga practices of Neti and Kunjal Kriyas."

Apparently it can also be used as a "skin tonic."   Um, yeah.  I'll just stick with lotion, okay?

Now, don't get me wrong; there are some "natural medicines" that have shown efficacy in treating human diseases.  Digitalis, aspirin, atropine, vincristine, the opiates, and a variety of other medically-useful compounds, now found routinely in standard medicine, are plant compounds.  Others are still being investigated -- the jury is still out on echinacea and turmeric, for example.  Others still (such as ginkgo biloba, supposed to be useful to improve memory) have been shown in controlled studies to be useless.

The point is, doctors and medical researchers are constantly looking for new ways to approach treatment, and they have nothing against herbals as a source of new, more effective drugs.  But, as Tim Minchin said, in his wonderful piece "Storm" (you should all watch it, but be forewarned -- there's some inappropriate language, should you be sensitive to such things), "There's a name for alternative medicine that's been proved to work.  It's called... medicine."

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