I just read this article in the New York times. Harvard Researchers who study child psychiatry have done research credited with vastly increasing the diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder. That increase comes with a pretty hefty boost to sales of prescription medication for the condition. And oh, yes, the researchers have received over $1 million apiece in consulting fees from—you guessed it—pharmaceutical companies.
The researchers are indignant at the idea that the consulting fees may have influenced their research. And indeed, no one has yet re-reviewed the research.
But hey! These are friggin’ psychiatrists. Social psychologists have known for decades that when you accept money from someone, you become biased in their favor. The bias happens even if you consciously try to keep it from happening. The bias happens even if you know about the bias effect. It’s part of the “commitment and consistency” principle of social psychology.
I’m in the middle of reading a book on the topic by two of the most prominent, well-respected social psychologists in the world, Mistakes Were Made. I’m only partway through, but I just read pages 43-55, which lay out specifically the studies that have shown than (a) scientists paid by industry tend to be influenced in favor of the ones making payments, and (b) doctors given gifts by pharmaceuticals (oddly, small gifts actually show a greater effect than large gifts) tend to overprescribe the company’s products. Exactly the issues highlighted in this article!
What I’ve read so far convinces me that any research conducted by a researcher who has received fees from a vested party should be considered suspect. Furthermore, any drugs prescribed by a doctor who has received fees or promotional gifts from a pharmaceutical should be considered suspect.
We’re trusting our minds, bodies, and children to prescriptions and research done by people who have powerful unconscious reasons to find problems and prescribe drugs. That doesn’t mean the research is bad, nor does it mean there was any conscious wrong-doing. But the very fields of psychology and psychiatry have known for decades that the more powerful motivations are those below consciousness, and those are the very ones motivations triggered by the gifts, consulting fees, and promotions.