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Archive for April, 2008

Do You Believe in Objective (Ha! Ha! Wink, Wink!) Science?

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

As confidence in authorities plummets, one cherished bastion remains: the hallowed halls of medical scientific research. There we picture white-coated scientists making objective research determinations. Upon that bedrock, we make health decisions.

But does our image correspond to reality?

“The pharmaceutical companies say they’re about the science, but they’re really about marketing,” Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds, told Bill Moyers on television last night.

A former New York Times reporter with privileged entrée into the pharmaceutical world, Petersen, over eight years of research, sought to find just one scientist, who was not on a drug company payroll and could validate research science. None could be found. The so-called independent and objective experts were all in pharmaceutical company employ.

The “trustworthy expert” is a PR fabrication, first developed back in the 1930’s by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who applied Freudian psychology to mass media marketing. According to Trust Us, We’re Experts, Bernays’ time-tested formula (still used today) was hiring seemingly independent experts (and front groups) to manufacture the illusion of credibility in order to sell product.

“Whether a medicine helps or hurts is secondary to profit,” says Petersen. “A lot of money is spent selling drugs that don’t work. The FDA found that 100,000 people die annually from drugs correctly prescribed and taken. That’s a life and death matter.”

But doesn’t research, conducted by qualified independent scientists, weed out harmful or ineffective drugs”

Not necessarily, says Petersen. “The ad agency writes the study, and then hires doctors to put their name on it as authors,” she told Moyers. “They put their words in the mouths of someone who looks independent.”

Studies can also be manipulated, says Petersen, so that the outcomes will demonstrate greater efficacy or safety. Whenever research results favor the drug tested, the companies will “get that research published over and over in many journals,” Peterson found. “But if another study produces unfavorable results, that study will disappear. That’s why some scientists view the medical literature as “propaganda.”"

Where are the gatekeepers? Doctors are on the payroll with research monies, junkets, and cash fees. Peer-reviewed journals rely on pharmaceutical advertising. Companies pay the FDA huge sums for drug review, so that the regulators are beholden. Drug company lobbyists outnumber Congressmen by two to one. And then there’s the media.

TV advertising of pharmaceuticals:

First, allows PR firms to medicalize often minor health problems and “rebrand” them as worrisome new conditions, requiring drugs.

Second, undermines the media’s independence to question science (or report objectively on lower cost options.) Drug companies are big advertisers.

The net effect? Yes, it’s rising health costs and people taking pills in record numbers. But it’s also lack of critical reporting and information. How can people make the right health care decisions in a muddle of misinformation? How can we can consider all available health options in the divisive and opinionated environment created by a profit dominated health sector?

Last winter, I reported on a study finding that, for the majority of people, taking antidepressants was no better than taking a placebo.

“Placebo” is biological science’s term for the effects of psychology, belief, emotion, and conditioning on biological parameters. In pharmaceutic dominant research, placebos are deemed unworthy of study. But on the other side of the hallway, in the Marketing Department, accessing the placebo effect to influence people’s feelings and beliefs about health is the name of the game.

We have yet to study how drug advertising conditions its audience. Manipulating you to make you believe you’re sick? That reminds me of Charles Boyer in the film, Gaslight. No, thanks! This is an instance of the “nocebo effect,” the negative impact of words and images on one’s health. Ingrid Bergman may have cowered in the corner, but I prefer to change the channel the moment a drug ad appears.

What happens when we all submit to powerful images telling us to trust so-called experts? What’s the health impact of repeated messages that we suffer from mysterious and newly minted “health conditions?” How does the sum total of all this market-driven entree into the hearts and minds of our nation, influence our health status individually and collectively? The U.S. currently ranks below all other developed nations. Can we still afford to believe that this is objective science?

There’s no doubt that some drugs are beneficial and even life-saving, but there’s no way to know which ones are truly effective or necessary until all the real outcomes — biological, psychological, economic, and sociological — are considered. And until the independence of science, free of vested interests, is restored.

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Jenny McCarthy and the Autism Dilemma

Monday, April 7th, 2008

When I watch Jenny McCarthy on CNN or when I read the blogs (and comments) on autism, I keep wondering: What is this debate about? Yes, the parents of autistic kids are more “emotional” than the aloof doctors before them. But why are they met with anger, rather than compassion? If their concerns are heard, how does that harm other citizens? As a health journalist, and recent newcomer to this issue, I’m trying to understand the passion on the “pro-vaccination” side.

The underlying fear and anger towards these parents suggests that it’s somehow heretical to question any proffering of scientific “proof” even when it squares off with experience–in this case, parents’ tragic and oft repeated experience of watching hundreds of thousands of children immediately deteriorate upon vaccination.

As these two different and valid kinds of evidence collide, the collision should awaken the spirit of scientific inquiry. Instead it’s viewed as a threat.

Leading material scientist, Rustum Roy, currently co-launching the Journal of the Science of Healing Outcomes, maintains that throughout the history of science, most discoveries originate in similar circumstances, in the need to explain evidence not understood by current scientific theory. The dilemma of autism leads us to that threshold.

Over the last fifty plus years, what we have come to call health “science” developed as a research method to target single agents as angels or devils– cures or causes. Pharmaceutical companies use reductive research to find and patent drugs. They typically pay the high costs of such research, but even when they don’t, that research model prevails. Both the medical establishment and the general public assume that this narrow research model is the be-all and end-all of “science.”

Unfortunately, there’s much that this research focus fails to address. The totality of the human being, the complexity of human health factors, the wide range of health stressors, the multiplier effect when all of these variables interact, not to mention the biochemical individuality of each human being. Yes, each of us is unique.

Testing single vaccine ingredients to refute vaccinations as a major autism contributor is inconclusive, especially given the poor nature of the studies. Vaccines are not single agents.

Imagine consuming several different type of cocktails at once. Each cocktail contains multiple infectious agents, microbes, and metals acting together and creating new and unexamined synergies in interaction with each individual. Our research model doesn’t assess those synergies or predict which individuals are vulnerable.

So when science repeatedly proffers findings that “No, it isn’t this single agent,” rather than proving that vaccinations don’t precipitate autism, what’s demonstrated are the limitations of the modern reductive research approach.

Falling outside this research model, the many real factors and variables are treated as non-existent because the study design cannot account for them. As a result, every single autistic child serves as a living human reminder that we need to account for individual differences, multiplier factors, and human complexity–and adjust our scientific model and attendant belief systems accordingly.

Without that kind of re-evaluation and readiness to explore where the human evidence leads, pediatricians will continue to draw a line in the sand as they did on the Larry King show, where they said (in effect): Your child’s reaction is your problem.

With a near mandatory requirement and universal recommendation to vaccinate, shortfalls in the scientific model can result in tragic outcomes for individuals, not to mention financial burdens for which both government and industry refuse accountability. The New York Times recently reports that a current case in court could potentially provide drug manufacturers with a “legal shield,” indemnifying them from financial accountability for harm from any drug, approved by the FDA, depositing their profits while those suffering harm from a drug are left to pay the piper.

Stay tuned as current and future generations of parents assess their risk tolerance in the lottery of vaccine and drug recommendations for which manufacturers disclaim responsibility. If the autistic children’s parents’ outcry turns out to be justified, thousands of future newborns yet to be vaccinated could soon join the ranks of “evidence.’

Like Jenny McCarthy, many parents with autistic children seek out treatment approaches that account for individuality and multiplier effects. Some report success in recovering autistic children. Yet according to parents, pediatricians often deny the cure, arguing that the child wasn’t autistic to begin with.

Facing this dilemma with their doctors, the government, and the drug manufacturers, it’s no wonder parents of the autistic don’t sound calm. Their experience recalls the story about the woman who walked in on her husband in bed with another woman.

“Who are you going to believe?” he asked, “Me, or your lying eyes?”

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Categories : Autism
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