Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Corruption of Science - Financial Ties Compromise Health Research

Richard Feynman's famous quotation about Science. 

At Dr. Rebecca’s Healthy Planet, we want to bring you unbiased, quality research and information about health. However, this turns out to be a lot harder than you might imagine. With corporate interests funding science and the media reporting the results, facts and study results can be twisted beyond recognition, especially when it comes to protecting us from hazardous and dangerous products.

What is science supposed to be?

Science, in its essence, is a noble call to discover and understand the workings of the universe from the largest galaxies to infinitesimal particles. Science, in its essence, is not about proving a hypothesis or advancing a cause, but is about simply observing the natural order of things (even in artificial experiments) and gathering information or data. What drives ethical and responsible scientists is a desire for knowledge and these scientists work diligently to conduct their research in as unbiased a manner as possible. The remarkable scientific discoveries that our modern age has enjoyed is a result of these scientists working long hours to search for answers to questions man has wondered about for eons.

For centuries, discoveries in science have always required not only the time, energy and curiosity of these scientists, but also some method of funding their research and experiments. After all, new discoveries do not fall out of the sky. New ideas must be considered, tested and accepted and rejected based on these experiments. In truth, very few experiments in science actually answer questions directly. Most often, it is a long period of trial and error that is required to gain any traction in any particular field and progress is slow and halting on the journey to ultimate discovery.

So where does the money come from for science?  The truth is, it doesn't really matter where the money comes from as long as the person paying the bills cannot bias the outcome of the work. In order to avoid this bias, scientists are able to get the most honest results when their source of funding has no vested interest in the outcome of their work. In other words, scientists and their sources of funding are kept at arms length from each other. In this way, the scientist does not feel consciously (or unconsciously) motivated to please whoever is paying the bills. Clearly, a scientist will have difficulty developing objective and meaningful work if their source of funding are wanting (or expecting) a certain outcome from their experiments and clinical studies. In the real world, this kind of arms length relationship occurs when funding for science is provided by unrestricted grants. These grants may come from various agencies, not-for-profit institutions or even responsible corporations, but they all have one thing in common...they don't ever pressure scientists in any way to find a particular result during their research.  

What has happened to science in healthcare?

Unfortunately, for the past 100 or so years, some corporations have been working to simply buy the “scientific” results they need, rather than waiting for or accepting the natural timing of slow deliberate unbiased research. When these corporations pay for this type of research study, the “research” that results is often extremely dubious. Clearly, this is not what Richard Feynman had in mind when he made the famous quotation seen at the beginning of this post. 
The other problem that may arise from this type of unscrupulous science is that  these corporations may even report the results of these studies to the media with a clear bias. In other words, the study results will be reported to the media in a way that favors the corporation’s goals and not necessarily in accordance with the reality of what was found during the study. Through this this type of “research”, corporations can try to show that their products have some health benefits for consumers (thus encouraging consumers to buy their products) or, of even greater concern, they can try to downplay the dangers and hazards of their products (thus forestalling the government banning or regulating their products).

The problem is, reporters rarely have the time, energy, or expertise to read or understand the complexities of every new study. Studies are complicated and difficult to understand even for experts in statistical analysis, so it is unreasonable to expect that reporters would have the ability or the inclination to uncover the truth about these studies. Furthermore, other scientists who have the expertise to assess whether a study has any merit, rarely have the time or energy to police what reporters are told or say on the news. Often, the only thing reporters know are what the marketing departments of a company report to them. This allows a lot of misinformation to be cultivated and fostered by the corporations who stand to benefit financially from consumer misinformation and confusion.

So what happens if the research actually finds the opposite of what these corporation were hoping to find when they paid for the study? These corporations actually have a pretty blatant way of getting around this problem. Any study that industry funds which does not produce their desired results may be either (legally) buried in confidential files (called “trade secrets”) and never released. This is entirely legal and protected (as “trade secrets”) by the US Government. Very few people have access to this confidential information, and anyone who does is required to sign non-disclosure legal papers saying they will not disclose any of the information found, even if that information shows that the products actually does harm.

Unfortunately, there are so many ways to game the results of these studies that the same set of data from a single study could be interpreted multiple times and give a very different result each time. These types of conflicting results are the cornerstone of corporate tactics to delay regulatory action against dangerous and hazardous products. By instilling doubt and uncertainty about whether or not a product is actually dangerous, corporations can prevent their product from being removed from the marketplace for years while the government fights an uphill battle toward unreachable “scientific certainty”.

Can the government protect us from dangerous products?

When it comes to potentially dangerous products, the American government agencies that regulate safety (OSHA, EPA, FDA, etc.) are required by law to, during the regulatory process, review all submitted studies on that product. While that sounds like a good law, at first glance, (after all, wouldn’t you want the government to look at all the information that is available about a potentially dangerous product?), in reality the law can and does get abused by corporations.

The problem is that the government must review every single one of these studies which takes a lot of time and energy. Some corporations use this law to their advantage in order to drag out the regulatory process for up to 5 years or more. In the mean time, these companies are allowed to continue selling their potentially dangerous products. Here’s how it works, during the regulatory period, these companies might spend $250,000 to fund scientists and writers to skew the results of a few studies (or meta-analyses). During those 5 years, they are likely to profit in the realm of millions or even billions of dollars, making their investment in “science” well worth their while. Furthermore, the more studies the corporations produce, the more studies the government is then forced by law to review. This process can drag on for years and years allowing corporations selling dangerous products to continue doing business as usual even as evidence mounts that consumers may be suffering the dangerous effects of these products.

Is there such as thing as “scientific certainty”?

One tactic used by corporations is to try to instill enough doubt about the potential dangers and safety concerns of their products to confuse regulators. Corporations try to argue that their products should always be allowed to be sold until there is “scientific certainty” that they are dangerous. This concept has allowed dangerous products to remain in the marketplace long after any responsible scientist would have removed them.

The very idea of “scientific certainty” is an impossible thing. The apparent goal of corporations is to foster just enough uncertainty to put off any regulation of their products (and generate profit at the expense of public health and safety) for as long as possible. They do this through various means, as the field of statistics offers various ways to not only shape and interpret collected data, but also to represent it in a confusing way that deliberately generates uncertainty. And a little uncertainty goes a long way.

When a study is not even a study...

One of the most common tactics that is used in an attempt to foster doubt about a study is called a “reanalysis”. In this case, the research is handed off to a professional writer to skew the results and reanalyze the data. This usually consists of decreasing (or cherry picking) a sample size to such a low level that any statistical significance virtually disappears. If a study noticed that 10% of people exposed to chemical X got sick, and the sample size (whole test group) was one million people, then that is pretty significant (100,000 sick people is nothing to sneeze at). However, if the chemical industry shows that a reanalysis of a (specially picked) subgroup of 1000 of those people, only 7 got sick, then they could conclude that chemical X has no (statistically) significant impact on health. After all, only 0.7% of people in their reanalysis showed illness following exposure. Do you think the average scientist running an ethical, independent study, but who is barely funded by independent research grants, can possibly compete against the media influencing power of a corporation with advertising budgets of almost 100 times the cost of a study itself? Which story gets more attention by the media?

Often, this reanalysis technique is used without actually having to do any research. They just wait for some study that shows that a product is dangerous or causing cancer and hire a group of writers (not even scientists) to “reanalyze” the data and massage the statistics to show the opposite. As the first chairman of the EPA said, scientific data “is like a captured spy; if you torture it long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know.”

Clearly there is no serious merit to a study like this as the data has been altered to fit the desired results. Nevertheless, these false studies are produced en masse and used to overwhelm the systems in place to evaluate safety and efficacy of products. If the EPA or FDA has to review (and run the whole bureaucratic rounds on) 300 studies, that takes a lot of time and work. When 250 of them are industry funded, you can easily see how this can stall or even derail regulations meant to protect people for the sake of profit.

A few examples

While examples of corporations manipulating science for profit has happened countless times in the recent past, a few examples will help to demonstrate the point. Tobacco companies are perhaps the most visible group that has used these tactics. Until recently, tobacco companies simply denied that smoking even contributed to lung cancer, churning out hundreds of studies casting doubt on the very idea. Another example involved a chemical called Diacetyl (a popcorn “butter” flavoring responsible for the heavy media reporting on “popcorn lung”) took several years to get a ruling on, despite BASF (the company who owned the patent) having done research during the development phase of the chemical that showed how dangerous it was (the study was buried and unreleased due to “trade secrets”). Even today, there are ongoing battles to limit harmful chemicals, such as perchlorate, in drinking water, which has been in regulatory purgatory since the 1980s.

Dig for the truth...

There are many ways to confuse, confound, and simply coerce people using manipulative statistic tactics, so how can we protect ourselves? Asking the right questions and examining the answers is a good first step. What, then, do we ask?

Bias (financial or personal) can creep into research even if there is no deliberate attempt to alter results. Is someone trying to prove a pet theory? When you hear a sound byte on a news story or read a quick report on some emerging health issue, it is important to know where the source information comes from.

Financial interests are perhaps the most important, and sometimes most difficult, form of bias to recognize. Is the information from an actual research study, and if so, who funded it and how did they fund it? Does the report prompt you to buy a certain product? Did you hear the information in a commercial? Did the news report sound like a commercial? Researchers are people, and are like all people they will usually try keep the people (or corporations) funding them happy. This may be entirely unconscious by the researcher and yet it does have the desired result of encouraging these corporations to continue funding their research.

Be aware that it may be what you don’t know, aren’t told, or what is deliberately kept from you that shapes the picture of the world that is presented. It is important to look deeper and ask the questions that matter. After all, you don’t want to be making decisions about your health based on biased studies and misinformation created by corporations who are unlikely to have your best interests in mind. In order to make truly educated and informed decisions about your health, it is important to look deeper and ask questions. If you accept what information these unethical corporate interests spoon feed you, don’t be surprised to find out a few years later that it might just have been toxic all along.

Our only real protection from unscrupulous corporations trying to profit off of our ignorance is to be skeptical, to do our own research from trusted sources that do not rely on the sound bites and news cycles for passing on propagandized information, and to make up our own minds about what makes sense for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for our world.

The following resources were helpful in this research for this article.

Bending Science, by Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy E. Wagner
Doubt is Their Product, by David Michaels
Trespass Against Us, by Jack Doyle

For more information on the concept of "Scientific Certainty" and the politics of creating doubt:

Scientiļ¬c Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the Politics of Doubt

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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