This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 21st, 2006.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C.. In addition to 11 cities around the world every week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, we look at alternative medicine. Third, we’re interested in secularism and religion. The intersection of science and belief in God. We look at these three areas by drawing on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. I’m pleased to be joined this week by Professor Berry Beier Stein of Simon Fraser University. He’s a fellow of psychology and a contributor to the publications of the Commission for Scientific Medicine, also housed here at the Center for Inquiry. We’ll be discussing what he calls the sins of Big Pharma, Big Pharmacy. But first, my favorite, Lauren Becker, with a word for all the and non joiner’s out there.
There’s a new bumper sticker that has been catching my eye lately. It says, be careful who you hate. It might be someone you love, though originally intended as a comment on the fury over gay marriage. It occurs to me that it might have something to say to us skeptics and humanists to. When I was a child, going to church was about going to hear Mom play the organ. Never about religion or believing in God. Even at a young age, the shepherd and sheep aspect of responsive readings seemed to me so repulsive as to be not only unbelievable, but undemocratic. After all, everyone knows that shepherds ultimately lead their lambs to slaughter. Why would people seek that kind of relationship? Isn’t that why we ditched the king now from a church? Wasn’t about God. It was about music. Of course, it doesn’t take a sociology degree to notice when your views don’t mesh with the crowd. So even as a child, I was aware that I had some opinions that everyone else would consider silly at best and threatening at worst. Clearly, I was a freak. Not only did I not believe in God, I liked organ music. Such ideas seemed destined to confine me to a lifetime of solitude, a life in which fulfillment would come from living my own life rather than from social acceptance and support. Honestly, I never saw anything wrong with this. But looking back, it was a bit strange. We homosapiens are the gathering kind. In some cases we are perfect herd animals. So it seems unnatural that a few of us would desire solitude. But when you think no one else is like you. You learned to be happy by yourself. And off you go. These thoughts were all in my head this past weekend as over 70 student leaders and 50 CFI community leaders came to Amherst for an intense three day leadership training conference amid sessions on event planning, community building and activism. The discussions and comments carried a familiar theme. Everyone was overwhelmed by the positive feelings that came from being surrounded by fellow skeptics, atheists and humanists. And everyone expressed a genuine desire to transfer and cultivate that feeling within their groups back home. This reaction happens every time we host a conference, which got me thinking, Isn’t it interesting that a bunch of independent rationalists get together and immediately start to notice and talk about their feelings? This weekend, Richard Dawkins said that as important as it is organizing a group of atheists or secular humanists is like herding cats. In fact, this has become the running joke within our movement. The reasoning goes that we are all too independent, that we are all too skeptical and free thinking to join any groups, and therefore we prefer isolation. This is a proud and self congratulating explanation. But after observing people during our conference, I’m starting to wonder if this is really true. What if there is a deeper problem, one that could best be understood not by thinking, but by feeling. And then it hit me. Could our organizing woes be a case of Aesop’s Fox and The Grapes? You might recall the story. One day a fox comes upon some grape vines and decides that he wants to eat some grapes. The vines are hanging rather high and try, as he might, jumping, pulling and tugging. The fox finally realizes that he will never be able to reach any so protecting his dignity and self-esteem. The fox simply tells himself that he never really wanted those grapes anyway. And off he goes. So here I am looking around at this enthusiastic group of supposed hermits and they’re laughing, hugging each other and sharing addresses. And I’m thinking, what if our tendency towards isolation is really a cover, a defense mechanism to deal with the hurt from a lifetime of awareness that we are different and excluded from our human family? A lifetime of wanting the socialization that is so much a part of our nature. Realizing we will never be part of the larger group and rationalizing. Well, we didn’t really want that anyway. What if as a result of this dissociation, our identity has become bound up in a kind of pride at being different from everyone else? If this is the case, then we have a much deeper problem than simply trying to organize fellow humanists, the retreat to isolation. This desire to somehow separate oneself from humanity is the antithesis of humanism. A survey from the University of Minnesota recently confirmed what we atheists have always known. And in a way, it added insult to injury. It found that according to the vast majority of our human family, not only are we not part of the group, we are a threat to the group and should be cast out. We cannot possibly be as immune to this rejection as we pretend to be. But famous for disrespecting feelings. It makes sense that we would be unaware of its effect on us seeing the relief and the release among the students this weekend. However, it’s clear that it has affected us and it was equally clear that we can get over it. If we are so bad at coming together as a group, I think it’s because we’ve had so little practice. Most of us have instead spent a lifetime getting good at not needing to be part of a group. We convinced ourselves that groups are for sheep and congratulated ourselves for being smart enough not to follow the shepherd. But I have a feeling perhaps that we miscalculated in suppressing this very human need to be part of a social group. We secular humans have ironically been denying our own humanity. And I fear instead of loving our fellow humans as a humanist, must we have grown to distrust them, dismiss them or even despise them? Can a person be a humanist yet hate humanity? I don’t think so. Of course, human beings are capable of terrible things, stupid thoughts and vile deeds. But we are also responsible for incredible acts of creation, intelligence, cooperation and kindness. All of this is part of the human condition to focus on the negative tendencies of human behavior, to spend one’s life licking the wounds of rejection, despairing for the plight of humanity, or bemoaning the idiocy of everyone but me. This is to live a logical fallacy. It’s counting the misses and forgetting the hits, and it reeks of an arrogant desire for specialness. Nowhere if I heard that before. Humanism cannot be about loving only smart humans or humans that think like we do or humans that are nice to us. If we are to convey a love and appreciation for humanity as a whole, the idea at the very heart of humanism, we cannot participate in the dividing of humanity into us versus them. The biggest challenge facing skeptics and secular humanist is not really the problem of herding cats. The hardest thing is remembering what it’s like to be human. It’s remembering that we are them if we wish to advance the cause of secular humanism. We must remember to love humanity and then rejoin it. And it wouldn’t hurt to get some better music to.
Hi, I’m Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. The July August issue is now on shelves at better bookstores and can be ordered online at W w w Saikat dot org or by calling our toll free number one 800 six three four one six one zero. We are open Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 Eastern Time. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquire helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. Am so sure that you love this magazine that I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about. To get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin and join the skeptical inquiry. Thank you.
I’m really pleased to be joined in the studio today by Barry BYOR Stein, who is professor of psychology and a member of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University. His research has involved many areas related to his primary scholarly interests, brain mechanisms of perception and consciousness, and the effects of drugs on the brain and mind. His work in these areas and his interest in the philosophy and history of science have also led him to be skeptical of many of the Ecole to New Age claims so prevalent in society today. This has prompted him to investigate the scientific status of many questionable products in the area of medical and psychological treatment, as well as a number of dubious self-improvement techniques. Dr by Herstein serves as chair of the Society of B.C. Skeptics, and he is a fellow and a member of the Executive Council of PSI Cop. He serves also on the editorial board of Cyclopes Journal, The Skeptical Inquirer. He was also elected to the Council for Scientific Medicine, another organization headquartered here at the Center for Inquiry. It provides critiques of unscientific and fraudulent health products. He’s a founding member of Canadians for Rational Health Policy and a contributing editor of the journal The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. He’s publishing these areas himself and is a frequent commentator on such topics, on TV and radio and in the print media. Welcome, Barry Byre Stein to a point of inquiry. Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. Barry a while back. Both you and I were on the same program and at an event in Florida, and I heard you give a really thought provoking talk about Big Pharma, the big pharmaceutical companies, and, well, what you called their sins. That’s what I’d like to talk about today, if you don’t mind. Why? What are the sins of Big Pharma?
Well, first of all, let’s say that there are many virtues, too, that people in my family and probably yours as well are alive today because of the breakthroughs and and the products that they have made available.
And so that said, what worries me is that over the years, these big companies have gone from relatively small, family owned things that had a sort of sense of obligation that sure, they were commercial things. And I have no problem with people making an honest profit on their ingenuity and effort and that sort of thing. That’s not the problem. But gradually, these small family organizations got gobbled up into bigger and bigger and bigger conglomerates and by people with MBA is not M.D. or HD and people whose only allegiance was to the bottom line and to the shareholders perception of the bottom line. And when that happen, they started to spend more and more money on advertising, where it’s come to the point now where the research and development and of the organization is essentially driven by by economic interests and advertising. And the companies are spending more time on that and more money on that than they are on coming up with the next blockbuster drug and more and more. They’re relying on your tax dollars and mine to fund independent research in the universities, and they are then essentially getting it for free or very little investment of their own and are now packaging and selling these things and advertising them directly to the endpoint consumers, which I think is a terrible thing to do and right the commercials on TV every night.
Your doctor, if you need. Exactly. Ask your doctor about this or that prescription. Do you think that that’s having a real effect? Are people taking more drugs now than they’ve ever taken?
Well, all I can say, I don’t actually have the figures at my fingertips to answer that, but they keep doing it. And again, these are pretty hard nosed people and it didn’t seem to be paying off. I, I, I’m pretty sure it would have been abandoned by now.
You mentioned R&D. Pharmaceuticals are really expensive. And the justification that Big Pharma has traditionally given for how expensive they are is that they have to spend millions and millions of dollars in R&D and then in in advertising to bring the product, the drug to market. Is that an okay just victory scheme in your eyes?
As far as it goes, it has a definite grain of truth to it, and it’s very expensive to develop and then also to go through the regulatory process of of getting a license for prescription purposes. And and again, recouping legitimate costs is entirely okay. And as I said before, making a profit on your ingenuity and effort isn’t bad either.
But you say they go further than just recouping their legitimate costs.
Well, indeed, they spend a huge amount of money on lobbying and getting in the government. I mean, the government is essentially giving them a monopoly and probably a good thing in and of itself. But what they are doing is, is having the the laws and the regulations changed through their own lobbying efforts. And at one time, I assume this is still true. There was one lobbyist for the major drug companies for every member of the United States Congress and. Washington, D.C.. Wow. And so over the years, they’ve been watering down the regulations on the claims that can be made and and how firmly they these drugs have to be proven to be safe and effective. And many things have changed. And I don’t think they’ve benefited the consumer. And the other big thing, of course, is what we call patent creep, that that if these people are in the big drug houses really were putting all this money into the next blockbuster or something really big, a new and excellent, then I think that argument that we were just mentioning would have a little more force. But more and more, what’s happening is the research money is going into what we call lifestyle drugs. And not the things that that the world really needs, like cures from malaria and things that affect far more people and not curing diseases, but inventing drugs that the mass of all consumers. That’s right. Making diseases out of things that may not essentially be diseases and ignoring the real plight of the majority of the sick people on this planet. And then the other thing is that, as you know, they have got the patent laws changed in some areas and even where they haven’t. They’ve gone to what I was calling near to go patent creep where they take a drug. But that is fine. But the patent has now worn off. And any generic manufacturer can make it now without paying royalties and can sell it way cheaper and so on. And so what patent creep means is that the drug companies, instead of looking for a new and better drug, will take one that they already have a patent on. Change it in some inconsequential way. But the molecule is not exactly the same. And that’s what the patent is granted for. And they’ll bring it out and then spend that huge amount of money advertising in detailing doctors and things like that to try to convince patients as well as doctors that the new thing is actually better than the old and that sometimes it is, but often it’s not.
So you’ve mentioned a couple of these sends a Big Pharma patent creep and the world health gap. I’d like to talk about both of those in detail in a moment. But let me just ask you in general, I remember this talk that you gave. You said that there are a lot of other things that big farmers permitted to do in our society that don’t necessarily benefit society. What are some of these other practices?
Well, certainly there used to be strong restrictions on the kinds of ads, the kinds of claims that they could make. And and that has been that’s been weakened by lobbying. Yes, exactly. In many cases, it may not be quite the case that the foxes guarding the henhouse, but it’s tending toward that, that there’s this sort of revolving door between the companies and the regulatory agencies.
And and the same people show up on both sides of the table with the alarming frequency and things like that. Another thing is, you know, so-called alternative remedies, of which I’ve also been very critical is, you know, people argue that one of the reasons that these things haven’t been tested appropriately and so on is there can’t be any money in it because the big drug companies don’t can’t patent them and so on and so on and so on.
But but aren’t the big drug companies actually buying? Exactly. Not exactly where I was going.
That that huge number of what started out as independent purveyors of alternative remedies are now wholly owned subsidiaries of the big pharmaceutical companies. And so they’re pushing these things in the same vigorous way and pushing things that some of them are OK. But a lot of them at best are are harmless and expensive placebos. And worse, they’re actively dangerous.
Barry, you talk about a tight knit relationship between Big Pharma and the universities, but much important research that happens in our society happens at the university. So what’s so wrong with this cozy relationship, if it’s done right?
It can be beneficial on all sides. And there’s nothing wrong with partnerships among those of us who do pure research and those who can turn those into widgets that can be sold as safe and effective and fair priced commodities to the people. I have certainly no argument with that. But the problem is the old he who pays the piper calls the tune problem. And the sad part is that a lot of people who would probably rather be doing the really fundamental research from which most of our breakthroughs and technologies and applications come from are forced into more and more and more narrow, commercially driven kinds of projects.
Because that’s the most significant in their own interests or in academia. But because governments have increasingly shirk their responsibility to to give grants without strings attached and so on, and to study the fundamental workings of of the body or the universe or whatever. Those of us who do research have become more dependent on these collaboration’s. And again, they’re not always a bad thing. But there are certain egregious cases where the the directions have been called, too.
It’s not trivial, at least not the most important issues by the funders. But but but the worst ones, of course, is that sometimes in these collaboration’s, the researcher finds that the product is worthless or worse yet is harmful. And this is less likely to happen now because the universities have suddenly realized the danger of this and cut it down. But I suspect it still happens sometimes. But the person or the organization supplying the money has a veto power over the dissemination of that information. And if it doesn’t work, the public has a right to know. And if that’s thwarted, well, and that’s a serious disservice.
So can you cite any examples where Big Pharma bought the research it needed in order to advance its goals of getting this or that drug approved? Is that the kind of stuff you’re talking about?
Or is this kind of thing now there to do their research at the more basic level to produce new drugs? And then, of course, these things have to be tested in clinical trials, which are done in the big medical centers associated with with medical schools. And they have to prove, first of all, the safety and then the efficacy and properly done blinded, placebo controlled randomized clinical trials. And and so these are funded researchers in the universities get their funds to do these things in contracts from the companies and that sort of thing. And there was an awful case in Toronto a few years ago. A researcher, many of Dr. Nancy Olivieri was had a contract to test a new drug and found exactly what I just said, that not only was it not as effective as they’d hoped, it did have some effectiveness, however, but that the worst side was it was actively dangerous. And just happened that the university was in negotiation for a very large donation toward some new facilities at the university at the time that all this was transpiring and one of the major teaching hospitals of the University of Toronto and and eventually the university came through and did the right thing. But but one would have hoped that this would have been automatic and instantaneous and they had to be goaded and prodded and whatnot. And Dr. Oliver R.E. was hung out to dry, as it were, and the ultimate outcome was OK. But it took way longer than it should have and a huge amount of anguish. And and it it really boils down, again to dollars and cents.
You mentioned a few minutes ago about what you’ve called elsewhere, the global health gap that the poor and the elderly are paying more for their medicine than the rich, that the wealthy people in the Western world are spending money on medications that aren’t curing or going after central, very important diseases, but more cosmetic things.
That’s right. The drug companies have put their research money into those things that are going to produce largely not entirely, but largely, you know, those things are going to produce and patentable, salable and highly profitable things. And of course, the people who can afford to pay them either out of their own pocket or can afford to pay for the proper or kind of health care insurance that will cover it and that sort of thing do not suffer, by and large, from the kinds of diseases that if you simply count the the disease load, as the epidemiologists call it, around the world, that account for the vast majority of of the things people suffer from. And we mentioned malaria is a good example of that. And beta thalassemia and these other ubiquitous diseases. But the the people who who suffer from the most, who die from the most, are in the poorest countries in the world. And they personally and their governments don’t have. And of course, AIDS burden where we all know about, too. And the problem of patents and and and that sort of thing.
So you’re saying the drug companies aren’t going after those diseases because there’s not as much money in it?
Well, with the exception of AIDS, perhaps, but certainly the other ones we mentioned. Yes. That that either, you know, the thing the research hasn’t been done to come up with the appropriate medication or better medications than we have or or that the ones that we do have or are not. They’re not profitable. They would be if everybody who had the disease could afford them and buy them. But as we just said, that’s not the case.
Big Pharma claims to be relentless in their pursuit of new cures, but they’re simply not pursuing cures of these diseases. What kinds of things are they curing if they’re relentless about curing diseases?
Well, a lot of things that, you know, we shouldn’t trivialize. I mean, erectile dysfunction, if you suffer from it, is not a nice thing, but. Still, you know, in the grand scheme of things. And by the way, that the breakthrough that that made Viag grand scale is possible. Three Nobel laureates who discovered the basic fundamental physiological processes underneath and the drug companies essentially got that information for free.
It was originally a heart, a heart medicine. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
It’s a case where what we’re considered undesirable side effects became the main effect that was advertised and sold. Yeah. So anyway, that that’s the the the other problem is, is that the research money that is being spent, at least within the pharmaceutical companies, is being targeted toward, again, not to trivialize them, but but things that are what somebody once called diseases of the rich.
I saw an ad the other day for a drug that you’d take if you have what’s called Restless Legs syndrome. You know, you have a lot of you have some nervous energy in your legs. Like that’s the thing that people are most concerned about now. And every few years there’s a new drug for a new ailment that few years before no one even knew they had.
Right. Well, this is an example of what sociologists call the medicalization of problems. And sometimes it’s entirely appropriate. And other times it’s making a disease out of the vicissitudes of life.
So, Barry, what’s the bottom line here? If Big Pharma is committing these sins, are you calling for a mass grassroots action to over throw big pharma? What’s the solution to these problems?
Well, I think the regulations have to be changed. And, you know, history tells us that it’s extremely rare for anybody who is in a privileged position to voluntarily give up his or her position of privilege, because with it comes all the wonderful things that we all seek for the good life. And and so I think the source of the problem is that we’ve adopted a wholesale Free-Market, commodity based view of these things. And they’re not. I mean, we’re talking about the well-being of millions and millions of people and the lives of millions of people. And it’s not the same as making lawnmowers or are shoes or other consumer goods. And we’ve handed these people a state monopoly and they owe us. I think, a little better return on it. And I repeat, I am not rabidly against a fair profit for or once genuine contributions. And and people of goodwill can perhaps differ somewhat on on how much it constitutes a fair profit or gouging or whatever. And. But the bottom line is that the regulations have to serve the public more and regulate the pharmaceutical companies for our benefit because we’ve given them a very valuable monopoly and they can still make lots of money and play by rules that I think have more humane and effective basis.
What do you say about those listeners who might have a libertarian streak who say, oh, here’s another as a scientist, a liberal calling for more regulation? What do you say to those people who say the free market will regulate itself?
Well, it may do, but what if it’s your daughter or my mother or what was, you know, people that we care about? I mean, these things have the power to to hurt people very much. And I know the other times I can get on my soapbox and rail about red tape and bureaucracy and and an unrigged needed rules and things that just cost money and waste time and so on and so on and so on. And there there’s obviously time and place where that’s entirely true. But but these are these are special things where we’re not dealing with ordinary commodities here and and rightly so with with with a state granted monopoly and that and that’s where I think that analogy breaks down. And because it’s not the free market, it is government subsidizing scientific research by beginning actually and then and then regulating more and more with the needs of the manufacturers paramount rather than the needs of the consumers and the medical community.
Well, as was the talk in Florida. So was this conversation between you and me. Very thought provoking. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. My pleasure.
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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded here at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Thomas Donnelly, Barry Carr, Lauren Becker and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host, DJ Grothe.