Thursday, November 05, 2015

In praise of free enterprise and science

A good and extremely intelligent friend of mine posted this picture on FaceBook yesterday. The essence of my response was "Nonsense!" but I think this subject deserves a longer riposte than is feasible on FB, so here we go.

  1. Pharma does create cures

    Despite the catchy graphic, pharma does create cures and other effective treatments.  From abdominal pain to Yellow Fever, there are pharmaceutical products that can alleviate the symptoms or cure the problem.
  2. The anti-profit meme

    It's increasingly popular to follow the meme that any organisation that makes a profit is, by definition, "bad".  Typical proponents of this include Russell Brand, Owen Jones and Charlotte Church (all of whom interestingly enough are well-off or even rich and whose wealth has come about through selling things at a profit in the free market).  Free enterprise largely drives our well-being.  As Adam Smith wrote "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Just as the baker recognises that people want bread and strives to make better bread so that customers will buy from him rather than another baker, so pharma companies do the same.  If you still believe that the profit motive is wrong for the pharma industry, perhaps you could point out significant pharmaceutical developments coming from Russia, China, Cuba or Venezuela.  I suspect the list would be very short indeed. 
  3. Pharmaceutical scandals

    Does this mean the pharmaceutical industry is perfect?  No, of course not.  Organisations are run by human beings and human beings get things wrong from time to time, both by accident and deliberately.  The logical fallacy lies in taking exceptional behaviour and arguing  that this is typical: for example "Vioxx (at high dosage over a long period of time) caused heart disease; therefore Merck is evil; this is what pharma companies do; therefore pharma is evil."  But such behaviour is both unusual and also rooted out.  Pharmaceutical scandals are the exception, not the rule.
  4. (Mis-)Understanding Science and Medicine

    The same friend who posted the picture above also wrote "Fundamentally people need to be better informed," and he is absolutely right.  I've argued this for some considerable time.  As children we should be taught what makes for a logical argument and to be aware of common logical errors and also to have a more sceptical approach to science.  Newspapers (the Guardian is mostly an exception) often report science matters poorly.  This is a huge topic and is brilliantly written up in Ben Goldacre's easy to read book Bad Science.  Or you could watch his TED Talk.
  5. Big Pharma is uniquely bad

    No, it's not.  Mistakes (or wrongdoings) occur in every industry and pretty much every company of any size.  Big companies have the opportunity to make bigger mistakes.  Just ask Volkswagen.  Swissair.  Tyco.  Enron.  Lehman Brothers.  Just Google "corporate scandals".
  6. Anti-Science

    Finally, in the last few decades there has been an increasing move to assume that since science doesn't know everything, non-scientific viewpoints are equally valid.  That's nonsense, but there's someone which says this far who says this far better than I can: Dara O Brian, so have a listen in to that and I will stop.

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