Everything we see, read and hear is biased. This is an inevitable part of receiving information through the filter of other people, media, and your own past experiences. But what about when people are intentionally biased in order to gain from your unawareness? Or to take advantage of your lack of time of knowledge about an issue? It’s unfortunate that our whole society is based on a capitalistic system, which has led to companies who will stop at nothing to take us for a ride…and we let it happen because we need the excitement.
When what we understand to be true is false:
One of my biggest pet peeves is bad science. Or should I say, biased science. Yesterday I happened to watch an interesting video (which I linked below) in my Epidemiology class. Our topic was the placebo effect in clinical trials, but what I found more interesting, as well as completely revolting was the way in which publication bias is used to greatly exaggerate the benefits of pharmaceutical drugs.
Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to concern my professor and she didn’t talk about the issue that the FDA allows pharmaceutical companies to discard data from negative drug trials and only publish the findings of successful trials! Well, I’m holding my own class here because I need to discuss this! Thank goodness for the internet!
If you don’t want to watch the whole video clip, relevant parts can be found at 3:45 and 8:40.
The video above, “Treating Depression: Is there a placebo effect?” by CBS News talks about the findings of several studies that show that prescription anti-depressants are not any more effective than a sugar pill (aka placebo) in treating the mild to moderately depressed population. Psychologist and associate director of the Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School, Irving Kirsch obtained unpublished data from drug company clinical trials from the FDA through the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed them along with the published positive findings to discover that antidepressants are no better than a placebo for most of the population. Anti-depressants only show benefits to those who are severely, clinically depressed.
But although there are no actual benefits to taking antidepressants, there has been a rise in prescriptions given out in the last decade, mostly among the mild to moderately depressed! Keep in mind that the pharmaceutical industry is worth $11.3 billion (according to CBS News at the time of the video). What better way to keep profits up than to convince people that something works when it doesn’t?
What is happening is that for the pharmaceutical company to get approval of a drug from the FDA, the company needs to show that their pill is more effective than a placebo in only two clinical trials, even if many other clinical trials failed! The pharmaceutical company is allowed to discard all negative findings and keep testing until they have two positive findings, then the drug is approved! I’m not a statistics major (I’m a Community Health major) but even with my rudimentary understanding of probability, I know that if you repeat a test multiple times, you do get false results occasionally! Most sane people would conclude that what happens the majority of the time is the true result, and what happens randomly is error!
The director of the FDA’s division of pharmaceutical products defended the approval process and said, “The data that we have shows that the drugs are effective.” (In reference to the antidepressants). My reply to this is outrage! Of course your data shows the drugs are beneficial, by your own process all negative findings were not published and allowed to be discarded! *Facepalm*
But we rely on the excitement of new revelations, breakthroughs, and discoveries:
Turn on the news: there’s a murder, an accident, a new scientific medical breakthrough. Scroll through a friend’s Facebook feed: there’s a party, an engagement, a vacation. Everything has to be exciting to register in our brains and stimulate our minds. For some reason, we seek out thrilling stories and sensational pieces of information. News outlets know this, that’s why they report on intensely moving events. Everyone on social media knows this, that’s why we are all either having the time of our lives or depressed as hell in our status updates.
Everything has to be extreme to keep the public engaged.
The form of bias that may be more detrimental than any other is publication bias: is the tendency to publish research with a positive outcome more frequently than research with a negative outcome. Negative outcome refers to finding nothing of statistical significance or causal consequence. (Source: The Skeptic’s Dictionary) This is also called positive-outcome bias, and it threatens the validity of findings in science and medicine.
In order to keep us engaged, researchers only like to publish findings that are positive or exciting. The non-findings, or the negatives, get shoved into a drawer somewhere and forgotten. Thus, the public only gets half of the truth. At worst, we get scenarios like the one detailed above concerning the pharmaceutical approval process of the FDA. The pharmaceutical industry gets to keep making billions of dollars selling drugs to people who do not benefit and may even be harmed.
At best, the public accepts this terribly skewed, biased version of reality as the truth and continues to be taken on the wild ride of false findings and media sensationalization.