Social media is both a blessing and the bane of my life. It’s used to great effect to counter (potentially dangerous) misinformation and share fun little tidbits about science. But at the same time it has made it easy to reach millions with wacky conspiracy theories. Some use it very effectively to spread misinformation.
For me social media is a great way to connect with friends and other science communicators. Though that doesn’t shield me from the misinformed or wacky side of the internet (there are a couple of folks who activity seek me out). It doesn’t surprise me that this happens. What does surprise me is when my friends share or like conspiracy theories:
Friends who are highly educated and I’ve had pleasant discussions with about policies, politics, and social issues. Of course we don’t agree on everything policy wise but we ground these discussions with facts. So when one of my friends shares something like the above conspiracy it both dismays and surprises me.
It doesn’t make sense
What baffles me about these conspiracy theories is that they don’t make a lick of sense if you think about it for a moment. If the pharmaceutical industry is hiding this cure, then why are CEOs of those companies still dying from cancer? Why do cancer researchers and scientists studying cancer still die from this disease?
Thousands of people would need be part of this conspiracy to keep the cure from everyone. Governments would also be involved to hide the cure. But why do this when a treatment that cures all cancers would dramatically reduce health care costs. Insurance companies would jump on this if they ever heard of this cure as a lot of cancer treatments are very expensive.
It also ignores the enormous financial incentive. Why would a for-profit company hide a cure? If you have a company that develops the cure for all cancers you’d be rich beyond your wildest dreams. Literally every single cancer patient would want to buy your medicine to get better.
There also wouldn’t be an end in sight for the demand for this treatment. We don’t yet have something that prevents cancer. So even if you cure every single cancer patient in one day there will always be new patients who need your treatment to get better.
It doesn’t account for how we do medical research
This is a big one. Pharmaceutical companies most of the time only develop medications and treatments. Scientists in an academic setting do most of the fundamental research about how the different forms of cancer work and what could be used to treat them.
It’s not even the big pharmaceutical companies that then develop these into new drugs. Most of the time small companies do this, often biotech startups backed by venture capital, that turn the fundamental research done by academic institutions into viable treatments. It’s only then that big pharmaceutical companies take note and want to back it with their production capacity and funds to get it to the market. You can make quite a bit of money this way if you have one of those successful startups.
The ego of scientists
To say that all these scientists involved in cancer research stay mum about that kind of cure is nonsensical. You would become a household name around the world if you discovered how to cure all forms of cancer. Instant fame in both the scientific community and outside.
Richard Alley explained it best when talking about what motivates scientists and what drives scientific discoveries:
Suppose that Einstein had stood up and said I have worked very hard and I have discovered that Newton got everything right and I have nothing to add. Would anyone ever know who Einstein was? A scientist at some level has to have a little bit of ego. The job description is very clear. It is learn what nobody else has. [..]
The idea that we wouldn’t want to be Einstein. If we can overturn global warming. If we could prove that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. If we could prove that we can burn all we want and not worry about it. How exciting would that be? How wonderful. How many prizes? How many people would invite me out to talks if I could prove that you didn’t have to worry about this?
Is there any possibility that tens of thousands of scientists there isn’t one of them that got the ego to do that?! It’s absurd! It’s absolutely unequivocally absurd!
Why believe in these conspiracies?
In a nutshell people find it comforting to believe in a conspiracy theory because it gives them a sense of control. For them it’s a far more frightening idea that cancer is a random event that can kill you than it’s to blame nefarious people who are withholding the cure for cancer.
This is easier to deal with than saying “shit happens.” Having cancer is a harrowing ordeal with the unpleasant treatments and how sick cancer can make you. So having these perceived enemies can be, as odd as it may seem looking in, quite comforting. Both for patients and for anyone faced with the harsh reality of how nasty cancer can be,
Ironically it doesn’t help you survive cancer, it easily can reduce your chances for survival. Down this conspiracy rabbit role lies a path to rejecting cancer treatments that work. I’ve seen the outright dangerous medical advice from those corners of the internet.
If you’re lucky you’ll only spend money on something that doesn’t work (though you can waste a ridiculous amount of money this way). But if you’re unlucky you might do something that hurts you or might actually kill you.
I do understand what drives this narrative
It’s not hard to understand what drives this narrative of the big bad pharmaceutical companies. Like any for-profit company they can be unscrupulous and very profit driven. Which can make business decisions down right unethical or revolting in the public’s eye.
Take for example Martin Shkreli. In 2015 he hit the news in a big way when he as the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC acquired the rights to produce Deraprim and then raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. His company is the only one producing this antiparasitic drug that’s widely used to treat toxoplasmosis. The behaviour he displayed during hearings also didn’t endear him with the public.
What happened to the price of EpiPen®, a product of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, is also big news lately. This is an essential device for anyone who can go to into anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction. You can carry it in a pocket or purse and in an emergency jab it into a thigh to deliver a life-saving dose of adrenaline. A decade ago a two-pack cost about $94 but today it averages $608.
Or lets talk about what happened in Italy where Aspen Pharmacare was fined by Italion antitrust authorities. Aspen Pharmacare had created artificial shortages of several cancer drugs as a tactic to boost prices by as much as 1,500 percent.
These are just three price examples of how pharmaceutical companies can and do behave. These are valid criticisms you can raise towards these pharmaceutical companies and the industry in general. But conspiracies like the one that made me write all this throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Often the good gets drowned out by the bad
What makes this situation worse is the tendency to give more attention to the outrageous than to the cheerful. Take for example Germanwings Flight 9525 that crashed into a mountain because one of the pilots committed suicide. Killing himself and everyone on the plane. The name of the co-pilot that caused the crash, Andreas Lubitz, got plastered all over the news media. A lot was written about him, why he did what he did, and what could be done to prevent similar cases from happening.
Who you barely heard anything about was the other pilot who got locked out of the cockpit by Lubitz and fought right until the crash to regain access. He did everything he could but was thwarted by the anti-terrorist measures that increased cockpit security. I’m far more interested in his story, and his name was Patrick Sondenheimer.
The same happens with medical news. The video below gives a good example of some very good news and how pharmaceutical companies contributed to it:
Producing medical treatments is expensive and you have to finance this somehow. A lot of it is financed via research grants or by companies who want to bring these treatments to market. Part of the money that finances all this comes from patients who pay for these treatments.
This can get very messy because you’re dealing with people. As a patient you often don’t have a choice, you need those treatments to get better. In some cases you rely on these treatments for your survival. How to deal with this is one of the more difficult health care related issues we have as a society.
Certainly some of the excesses and practices of the pharmaceutical companies, to put it mildly, aren’t exactly helpful. But they’re not part of some evil conspiracy to keep you sick so they can make more profit. That goes against everything we see about how profitable cures are and how medical research is conducted.