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Political Science and YOU! by Sandy Gottstein

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No, I’m not talking about the courses you take in college, studying what we normally think of as politics.  This here is about science that is not science, but politics.  That is, political science.

Most of us grew up thinking of science as this lofty arena where the disinterested search for truth prevails.  Scientists ask questions that need to be asked, and answer them as honestly, fairly and scientifically as they can.  They have no interest in the outcome, other than seeking the truth.

Blam, then you’re hit by the real world!  I was hit by it in graduate school, where I was a PhD student in psychology (emphasis in experimental social) in the 1970s.  (Quit and got my Masters.)  It became clear and disillusioning that many, if not most, scientists are only interested in research that supports their position and own research.  It became equally clear that studies could easily be designed to do just that.

In those days, we were lucky, though we didn’t know it at the time.  Industry didn’t have the strangle-hold on what gets researched and published that it now does.  Government’s revolving door hadn’t yet resulted in degraded standards.

Then as now, though, what wouldn’t be obvious to most of us, those who either didn’t have access to journals and/or hadn’t studied research methodology - who and what was suspect.

Yes, if there was a clear policy on conflict of interest at The Lancet at the time and if Wakefield had a conflict of interest and didn’t report it, he should have.  But is the allegation legitimate? Even the eminent journal Nature considers the proposition “debatable”. 

Regardless, even if Wakefield had a well-defined conflict of interest that was worth all this hullaballoo, why are other researchers with equal or even worse conflicts apparently exempt?  Was he singled out unjustly? 

Why is Dr. Paul Offit, for instance, who “holds a chair paid by Merck” and stands to make considerable money on RotaTeq vaccine, treated as an unbiased resource?  Why was he, a developer of vaccines, allowed to serve on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.  Why are his failures to disclose not challenged?

Why aren’t charges that have been leveled against the GMC about its own conflicts of interest being pursued? 

Because it is political science. 

And that’s where “YOU” come in.  All of us who care about the quality of health information we receive.  All of us who benefit or are harmed by policies and research that may or may not be colored by conflict.

We must stop allowing the so-called experts now touted as the sole divining rods to the truth to escape detection and examination.  Conflict of interest questions that only target those who take unpopular or unaccepted positions are wrong, plain and simple.  They neither advance science nor the truth.

As luck would now have it, of course, there’s now the Internet and access to information like never before.  How to interpret that information still remains a challenge, of course.  Regardless, it is up to us to do it.

We must neither condone, ignore nor reward conflict of interest.  We must demand that the standards be applied equally to all.

What we don’t know can and is hurting us.  Excusing rampant conflict of interest is detrimental to all our health.

Sandy Gottstein

Date: 2-8-2010

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." - Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), paraphrasing John Philpot Curran (1808)