The Magazine

Bad Medicine

Organized ignorance endangers health.

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By TEVI TROY
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Goldberg’s book is broader than Offit’s, as it looks at a variety of antiscience attacks on medical innovation. Goldberg makes the smart observation that the Internet has tilted the playing field in favor of those trying to scare patients, and against those trying to fight frenzied fiction with sober statistics. Although he acknowledges that the Internet has great potential to advance the cause of science, he also notes, 

Online information can be alarmist or can over-represent the potential for serious illness or side effects, and many websites represent an agenda that can be at odds with the existing scientific data and distorts contemporary information in a way that is misleading and disingenuous.

Goldberg’s premise is that people are largely incapable of evaluating risk as it applies to them as individuals. (In this, he is influenced by the pioneering work of the late social scientist Aaron Wildavsky and the Nobel Prize-winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.) According to Goldberg, the Internet exacerbates the situation by highlighting the sensational and burying the mundane, leading not only to anti-vaccine scares but also “cyberchondria,” the mistaken belief that one is exhibiting symptoms read about on the Internet. This is not dissimilar to “medical students’ disease”—in which med students imagine they are coming down with the conditions they are learning about in the classroom—but far more dangerous as it potentially affects the entire online population.

Goldberg notes that there are smart, science-based writers out there who can counteract the scaremongering, but they are too often subjected to variations of the attacks that Offit has encountered. One of the most frequent assaults against advocates for sound science is that they are shills for industry. Critics insinuate or accuse them of having conflicts of interest because they have worked for or with pharmaceutical companies or for organizations with ties to pharmaceutical companies. This charge is so broad it probably includes every research university in the country as well as the entire federal government. According to Goldberg, the movement to expunge any potential “conflicts of interest” from scientific study is one with an ulterior motive: to squelch debate and take anyone who has worked with, near, or for pharma out of the game.

We can be thankful that Robert Goldberg and Paul Offit have repeatedly shown the courage to defend the integrity of the scientific process, often at personal and professional risk. These two experts have provided valuable insights into the fractured way our public debate is taking place and the grave potential consequences Internet and media irresponsibility can have for the public health.

Tevi Troy, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the former deputy secretary of health and human services.

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