Monday, September 26, 2011

Using Logical Fallacies to Scold "Pharmascolds"

I first became dimly aware of how dysfunctional health care had become in the US after seeing, up close and personal, a case of attempted suppression of medical research because its content offended vested interests.  (See "Academic Freedom and the Corporate University" by Jennifer Washburn here.)  We have since blogged frequently about suppression of research, other threats to free speech and academic freedom in health care, and the larger anechoic effect, which undermines discussion of many of the threats to core values in health care.

A Case Illustrating "How Academic Orthodoxy is Enforced?"

Thus, I am always on the lookout for new cases which illuminate these issues.  So a recent post on the well-known Forbes blog site by David Shaywitz, identified only as a "contributor," caught my attention:
an elite coterie of self-righteous academics seek not to level the playing field but to dominate it, imposing their particular world view on everyone else. Of course, conservatives, among others, have long alleged this is the true nature of American colleges– where tolerance and open-mindedness is said extend from the left all the way to … the far left. But we now have the opportunity to see this play out at the professional level as well.

This sounds somewhat familiar. The FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) web-site boasts a huge case file of attacks on free speech in academia. Most of them did not involve professional schools, or academic medicine in particular. Note, however, that FIRE is avowedly non-partisan, and while many attacks they deplore seemed to be on the free speech of those on the right, quite a few were also on those on the left.

So what was the nature of this illuminating case?
Those who wonder how academic orthodoxy is enforced in practice need look no further than the response to a recent lecture given at Case Western University by Dr. Tom Stossel, the American Cancer Society Professor of Medicine at Harvard, and Director of the Translational Medicine Division of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he is also an attending physician. (Disclosure: Stossel was an academic colleague of mine back when I was in Boston, and we have co-written a number of commentaries over the years; we also coined the term, Pharmascolds.)

Stossel’s lecture, from what I’ve heard, was well-attended — so good for him. But the real news was the three sentence email received by members of the Case Western faculty prior to Stossel’s lecture — a nastygram sent by a colleague at the neighboring Cleveland Clinic.

Subject line: 'Re: Medicine Grand Rounds — Tuesday September 13th' (i.e. Stossel’s talk).

Body of the email (in full): 'This guy is an embarrassment to the medical profession. Can’t believe you would have him provide Grand Rounds. Your trainees deserve better.'

Enforcement or Just Argument?
Unless there is more too it, however, this case would not seem to fit in the category of attempts at suppression of free speech or academic freedom. After all, the folks from FIRE often note that the best response to speech or writing with which one disagrees is more speech or writing. The case above seems to involve two people who disagree, Dr Stossel, and whoever wrote the email. Disagreement is what free speech is all about. Per the FIRE web-site section on free speech:
Freedom of speech is a fundamental American freedom, and nowhere should it be more valued and protected than at America's colleges and universities. The 'marketplace of ideas' upon which a university depends for its intellectual vitality cannot flourish when students or faculty members must fear punishment for expressing views that might be unpopular with the public at large or disfavored by university administrators.

For this case to be an example of someone trying to "enforce academic orthodoxy," there needs to be an action, or at least threat of an action to silence one of these two people, or to punish one of them for what he or she already said.

So I looked for the next part of this case. But there appears to be a problem. There is no more to the case than what appears above:
And there you have it — watch and learn kids! - here’s how A-list academics do it, in three steps and three sentences.

So Mr Shaywitz appeared to be arguing that somehow the email sent about Dr Stossel is a threat to free speech. However, unless the email came from some academic official who could punish Dr Stossel or his audience at Case Western University, the threat to free speech is not apparent.

So we need to find out who wrote the three-sentence email, and whether he or she had the power to enforce his or her opinions as orthodoxy.  Who wrote the email?
The author of this email? Dr. Steven Nissen, perhaps America’s most quoted Pharmascold.

Dr Nissen is Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Although he appears to have an appointment at the Case Western Reserve Medical School, the chair of cardiovascular medicine there is Dr Dan Simon. Maybe Dr Nissen did not agree with Dr Stossel, but there is no obvious way he could "enforce" his dislike, or otherwise turn it into "orthodoxy."

Dr Stossel's speech may be obnoxious to Dr Nissen. And Dr Nissen's written email may be obnoxious to Dr Stossel, and to Mr Shaywitz. However, neither side has enforced its orthodoxy on, or suppressed the speech of the other.

Logical Fallacies

Relativist Fallacy
If Dr Nissen could enforce orthodoxy by merely writing an email, then Dr Stossel presumably could do so by giving his talk, and Mr Shaywitz could also do so by publishing his post. Implying that only Dr Nissen, with whom Mr Shaywitz disagreed, enforced orthodoxy appears to be an example of the relativist fallacy, the fallacy that a claim may be true for others, but not for the person making it.

Thus the central premise of the blog post appeared to be based on a logical fallacy.  This suggests one should be highly skeptical that the goal of the published work was really the defense of free speech. 

Straw Man Fallacy

It did begin with a paean to free speech that even FIRE staff might like, but then posed an interesting contrast:
When you think about the arguments raised by the Pharmascolds, critics who worry about university/industry interactions, constriction of academic freedom is typically cited as a key concern. To the Pharmascolds, industry represents an inherently corruptive influence on students and trainees, and threatens to impose a restrictive and biased world view upon them.

While this 'Pharmascolds as defenders of academic freedom' narrative has certainly enjoyed considerable traction (likely related to the enabling role of journalists in this dynamic), there’s another competing narrative to consider.

It appears that Mr Shaywitz really does not agree with the "Pharmascolds," a group in which he believes Dr Nissen fits.  Mr Shaywitz did not explain who the Pharmascolds other than Dr Nissen are. He did not provide evidence in support of his summary of their views.  So, at least in this blog post, the Pharmascolds appear to be straw men, and Mr Shaywitz thus appeared to be using the straw man fallacy to support his argument.

A Second Relativist Fallacy

Moreover, Mr Shaywitz did not try to challenge the truth of the "Pharmascolds'" supposed views. Rather, he offered a "competing narrative." That is a surprising form of argumentation for someone who seemed to be appealing to conservatives. The notion that there is no truth, only competing narratives, is straight out of post-modernism, a school of thought with which conservatives rarely identify. Mr Shaywitz's casting of his argument as a better, but still "competing narrative," thus appears to be another use of the relativist fallacy.

So this extraordinary blog post in Forbes appears to be less a reasoned defense of free speech and academic freedom and more an attempt to once again discredit the "Pharmascolds," and hence to discredit anyone who is skeptical of the influence of pharmaceutical companies and other commercial vested interests on academic medicine. But like the last attempt to mock the "Pharmascolds," this one was based on primarily on logical fallacies.


We have noted that logical fallacies are increasingly deployed to defend the status quo in health care, and particularly to defend the interests of those who are profiting the most from the current dysfunctional system.  We have noted that several defenses of the conflicts of interest generated by financial relationships between physicians and medical academics on one hand and commercial health care firms on the other, were based on logical fallacies.  (See examples here, here, and here.)  I have yet to see a coherent, logical, fact-based argument that the benefits for patients' and the public's health of physicians and medical academics working part-time as consultants, advisers, speakers, and directors of health care corporations outweigh the obvious risks of biasing medical decision making, education and research in favor of vested interests.
I have also yet to see an argument in favor of conflicts of interest made by anyone who does not have such conflicts.  While David Shaywtiz was identified only as a "contributor" on his Forbes post, and as an "adjunct scholar" on the version on the American Enterprise Institute site, his profile on the Forbes site notes that he really is Dr David Shaywitz, trained as a "physician-scientist," who now "works at a biopharmaceutical company in San Francisco." His own blog identifies him as "currently Director of Strategic and Commercial Planning at Theravance, a publicly-held drug development company in South San Francisco."  So perhaps Dr Shaywitz disagrees with the "Pharmascolds" because their skepticism may be perceived as threatening the vested interests of Dr Shaywitz's company? Perhaps the campaign against the "Pharmascolds" is yet another example of stealth health policy advocacy by those with vested interests that might be threatened by skepticism about ties among physicians, academic medicine, and industry?

Physicians and the public need to stay extremely skeptical about much of published health policy advocacy, particularly when the arguments appear illogical, or the interests of the advocates are not clear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chirp chirp said the crickets.