PharmExec Blog

"Side Effects" and "The Normalization of Suspicion"

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Mark Herrmann, an attorney with Jones Day, co-proprietor of the Drug and Device Law blog, as well as an occasional contributor to Pharm Exec, has a lively review of Alison Bass’ Side Effects, a new book that tells the story of the campaign against Paxil.

His bottom line is a familiar one for journalists covering the pharmaceutical industry. He writes:

“Side Effects” belongs to a genre of investigative journalism that involves talking to plaintiffs, their lawyers and their expert witnesses, taking their stories as gospel and denigrating the opposing view because corporate money (apparently less pure than money from the plaintiffs’ side) supposedly has a corrupting effect. 

It didn’t help that, as Bass herself has pointed out elsewhere, GlaxoSmithKline provided minimal input to the book. But it’s easy to understand the unwillingness of pharma companies to speak these days. The truth that they have to present is nuanced, messy, and filled with uncertainties—from clinical trials that ended up proving nothing to reports of adverse events that can’t be definitively tied to drugs but can’t be ignored. And the public, for whatever reason, seems unable to tolerate a story that gets complex and murky. Conspiracy theory reigns. As the sociologist Frank Furedi put it in a recent online article:

Contemporary conspiracy thinking helps to fuel suspicion and mistrust of politics. It replaces critical engagement with public life with a destructive search for the hidden agenda; it distracts from the clarification of genuine differences and helps turn public life into a theatre where what matters are the private lives and personal interests of mistrusted politicians. The media, in turn, fuels this attitude by continually suggesting that what really matters today is not what public figures actually say, but rather what their ‘real’ agenda is. This incites the public to look for hidden motives. No one, apparently, is what he seems to be. The normalisation of suspicion has absolutely no positive element to it.

This isn’t to say that no one’s a villain. Of course there are bad, greedy people out there. But in a world in which screwing up, misunderstanding, and outright failure seem to be the true building blocks of life, is villainy really the first hypothesis that should be on the table?

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