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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Adam Smith Goes Pharmaceutical | Main | The Company You Keep »

June 11, 2002

And All For a Little Money

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Posted by Derek

Today I wanted to cover a particular intersection of medicine, commerce, and politics in the June 10th issue of The Weekly Standard.I've read the magazine on and off since its inception, and enjoyed it. I often agree with its editorial stance, and when I don't, I can usually see what the writers are up to, and how a reasonable person would come to their conclusions.

What caught my attention this time was something I disagreed with most strongly, but it wasn't an article. It was an advertisement on page 15, titled "Black Listed Cancer Treatment Could Save Your Life." Well, I earn my living by trying to find treatments that could potentially save people's lives, so headlines like that catch my eye.

But not in a positive fashion: for many years, I've kept an eye on all sorts of medical quackery, of which there is an inexhaustible supply. I'm pretty sure that I've seen this ad before, actually. For all I know, I've seen it before in The Weekly Standard.But I'd had a long day at the lab when I picked up this issue, and I was in a mood to read the whole thing.

It repays inspection. I found that in 1966, the "senior oncologist at a prominent New York hospital" developed some miracle serum that "shrank cancer tumors in 45 minutes!" And after another 45 minutes, "they were gone." (How this was determined using 1966 technology is left as an exercise for the reader, I suppose.) Who is this wonder-worker, and at which hospital did he work? The ad glancingly refers to him as "Dr. Burton," but goes on to relate that he was shut down by the FDA and forced - yes, forced - to leave the country, "where others benefited from his discovery." After their checks cleared, presumably.

We then switch to one Dr. Johanna Budwig, a "six-time Nobel Award nominee." Now an instant sign of fakery, as if another one were really needed after that first paragraph. No one knows who's really up for the science Nobels; the Academy isn't telling. When someone brags about being nominated for a Nobel in one of the hard sciences, it's time to head for the exits. I might as well say that I'm a six-time nominee for the NBA slam-dunk championship - hey, if I'd sent them postcards every year asking to be included, then why not?

"Dr. Budwig's" story is similar to Dr. Burton's, only she found a miracle diet that prevents cancer from even occuring. But (and you knew this was coming) she was "blocked by manufacturers with heavy financial stakes!" Hey, did they check Dr. Burton out? Seems like he'd have a reason to keep this competitor off the market. . .

Well, the ad goes on and on, and if you've seen one of these, in some ways you've seen them all. The whole thing is selling a book called "How to Fight Cancer and Win." Natural healing, miracle cures, secret breakthroughs they don't want you to know, all backed up by testimonials from people with initials for last names. One "Molly G" says that the book "has information I've never heard about before," and I find that statement the most believable thing on the whole page.

It's just another cheesy scam, another rip-off aimed at people who are scared of getting cancer, people scared that they might have it. . .or at people who really do have it and are scared that they're going to die. A fine group of customers to remove cash from. The publisher gets the money and a live mailing address (well, for a while), to sell to every other quack who needs a fresh group of the desperate and frightened.

So, what I'd like to know is, what is the Weekly Standard doing profiting from this slimy business? Now, I know that opinion journals need ads, and they never have enough. There are 44 numbered pages in this issue of the Standard, and there are only five pages of advertisements. That's probably about enough to pay for the coated paper. But I also know, as does everyone else, where the money is coming from: Rupert Murdoch, who felt it worth the inevitable steady losses to promote political views he agrees with.

More power to him, I say. But how are those views advanced by their proximity to sleazy ads for amazing cancer cures? I'm sure the advertising manager for the Standard would rather fill the issue up with ads for BMWs and single-malt whiskey. Does the magazine really hit the miracle-cure demographic? And does it really want to look like that's the one it reaches? Does News Corp. need the money this badly?

There's the practical argument. The impractical one is that taking money in exchange for giving these snake-oil merchants space is very close to immoral. I'm well aware of the precedent set (for example) by David Horowitz, trying to get his anti-slavery reparations ad placed in college newspapers. As was pointed out at the time, though, a newspaper or magazine is free to accept or reject any advertisements it feels like. (And a rejected advertiser is free to say what he thinks about the refusal!)

But this sort of ad isn't selling an argument - it purports to be selling scientific facts that will save your life. And these "facts" are, as far as I'm concerned, life-threatening bullshit. Would the Standard take an ad from the Scientologists? Would it take an ad from a throw-away-your-crutches faith healer? After this one, why not?

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