Thursday, June 17, 2010

The pharmascold litmus test: intellectually lazy

Dr. David Gorski at Science Based Medicine recently weighed in on an issue that's been a favorite of mine on this blog. It concerns a type of ad hominem attack based on one's ties with or influence by the pharmaceutical industry, be it real or perceived. (The specific circumstances of his long post involve the latest in a series of attacks against him by the anti-vaccination crowd. Those details aren't important for this post).

Drawing from a discussion by fellow SBM blogger Mark Crislip, he wrote:

However, evidence is evidence, and, although it is reasonable to increase one’s level of skepticism if there is a major COI involving the authors, be it big pharma or otherwise, it is not reasonable to use that COI as the sole reason for rejecting its findings out of hand. That’s just an intellectually lazy excuse to dismiss the study, nothing more. Indeed, one prominent difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist or quack is that in general scientists understand this and struggle to assign the correct degree of skepticism due to a COI when analyzing scientific studies, while quacks and pseudoscientists do not. It’s far easier for them just to put their fingers in their ears and scream “Conflict of interest! Conflict of interest!” and then use that to dismiss completely their opponent’s argument. It’s simple, neat, and it doesn’t require all that nasty thinking and weighing of evidence..

Yes, intellectually lazy. That's exactly how I've characterized this approach before, here, here and here. I've also referred to it as a case of selective skepticism.

But what I'm increasingly becoming aware of after reading this post, as well as several by one of his blogging buddies over at Science Blogs, is the closeness of the relationship between the pharmascolds and the quacks. Now, don't get me wrong. Not all quacks are pharmascolds and not all pharmascolds are quacks, but there seems to be a growing affinity and a good deal of overlap between the two camps.

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