The market value of bullshit detectors down, way down

Ben Goldacre writes a series on Bad Science for the UK Guardian. In this series he just published a review of the Bad Science that occurred in 2010. Apparently it has been a bumper year for Bad Science. Much of the Bad Science this year concerned the mechanisms of the big pharmaceutical companies and the mental health industry. The heading alone gives you some idea as to the breadth of the problem, Dodgy dealings in tough year for whistleblowers.

It’s been a marvellous year for bullshit. We saw quantitative evidence showing that drug adverts aimed at doctors are routinely factually inaccurate, while pharmaceutical company ghostwriters were the secret hands behind letters to the Times, and a whole series of academic papers. We saw more drug companies and even regulators withholding evidence from doctors and patients that a drug was dangerous – the most important and neglected ethical issue in modern medicine — and that whistleblowers have a rubbish life.

Bullshit is thriving then while whistleblowers are not doing so well. I hesitate to say doomed. I kind of feel like our world needs more whistleblowers and less bullshit myself. Hmm. Is this the kind of legacy we want to leave with our children and grandchildren? It doesn’t exactly say great things for their future, does it?

Where science meets culture, we found the weirdly inverted solipsism of brain-imaging stories that claim pain is only real if you can see it in blood flow changes; while researchers claimed that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is caused by genes, and that knowing this will reduce stigma, when the evidence overwhelmingly shows (to my surprise as much as yours) that believing a mental health problem has a biological cause increases stigma.

I saw that study, too, and funny thing, it seemed to have been swept under the rug almost as soon as it came out. Now you get the most recent study showing that “stigma” has not diminished one iota despite the rise in acceptance of the mental illness equals brain disease ideology. I happen, for good reasons, to subscribe to another theory. The mental illness equals brain disease ideology, by the way, subscribes to the biological cause view mentioned in the above snippet. Uh, and no wonder.

Evidence-based policy remains a distant dream. We saw politicians incompetently failing to produce evidence on whether their policy of compulsory drug treatment orders worked, and sacking David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs when the evidence was available but the results unwelcome.

I should say that the evidense in support of forced drugging in this country, considering the sources behind it, has never been particularly reliable either. If anybody was paying attention to what was going on over there, David Nutt got sacked because he didn’t attribute the development of psychosis to the smoking of marijuana to any statistically significant degree. This was just not the sort of message some of the UK mental health treatment empresarios wanted to hear. All madness is reefer madness. Smoking marijuana causes people to go bonkers and we won’t hear of any other explanations. Smoking marijuana and heredity.

One might add to the above examples of Bad Science one thing that Mr. Goldacre didn’t touch upon, and that’s the ongoing attempt by some people in the mental health world to get electro-shock machines grandfathered in, despite all evidense to the contrary, as devices reclassified “safe” by the FDA. This would be a matter of going by “expert opinion” alone, and not conducting any research to test and verify the safety of these devices because such research would in all likelihood find the devices unsafe. This reclassification would also be a major slap in the face to shock survivors giving testimony on the damage done by these machines. No other procedures could be “approved” in such a fashion. Although it hasn’t happened yet, it remains a danger worthy of our vigilance. When it comes to bullshit, it is what it is, and (think conspiracy theories, crypto-beasts, ghosts and UFOs) it’s more popular than ever.