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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 5, 2007

The Choir Hears It Again

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Posted by Derek

Over at Life Sciences Daily, Ogan Gurel has a post on the recent FDA Avandia vote that's worth reading. That's not so much for the Avandia news, which we all know about now - the main focus of the piece is on the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI) and their blog, Drugwonks.

I don't have a permalink up to Drugwonks, partly for the reasons that Gurel goes into. I should disclose, though, that I've met the people behind CMPI (Robert Goldberg and Peter Pitts), and have accepted their hospitality while attending a CMPI-sponsored conference last spring. I got along with both of them just fine. But that said, I don't think that their web site is as effective as it could be.

I think that whoever writes the posts there is trying for a lively, irreverent tone, but (as Gurel goes into a great amount of detail to show), a lot of the entries slide over into ad hominem invective. Now, I'm no stranger to that form of argument myself - any of my pieces on Kevin Trudeau would furnish a number of examples, and I enjoyed writing every one of them. (In fact, I reserve to right to back up and insult him again, when the opportunity arises).

But the weapon should fit the offense. There's almost nothing too nasty to say about Kevin Trudeau, but Steve Nissen (the cardiologist who's raised the alarm on Avandia and several other drugs) is no Kevin Trudeau. He's a very competent guy, with a set of strongly held opinions which he backs up with publications in high-ranking journals. Agree with him or not (and I've come down both ways in the past myself), he's a serious person making serious arguments. And they deserve serious responses, not the sort of raspberries and hoots coming from some of the Drugwonks posts.

And the thing is, I assume that the whole purpose of a think tank (like CMPI) is to influence debate. The tone of their blog, though, suffers from the same defects that make most political blogs (left or right) nearly unreadable to me. Conclusions are assumed without argument, choirs are preached to, poses struck - if you didn't agree with the point of view before you started, there's nothing there to convince you. Actually, if you didn't agree with the point of view before, you probably didn't even look at the site at all.

I've never felt the need to hang around sites where people do little more than cheer each other on about the rightness of their cause. I'd rather someone tell me something I didn't know, or show me a new way to think about an issue and why it might be correct. Perhaps that's the scientist in me. Are there other people who are more convinced by this sort of thing, from either end of the debate?

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. peter pitts on August 6, 2007 9:09 AM writes...

Hi Derek.

FYI, all of the entries on are written by the named authors. Also, per your comment on personal attacks, we strive to speak to the issue -- but when a person deserves (as we see it) to be called to task for what they have said, we do so -- as others do to us. I think our comments, while sometimes biting, do not extend into the realm of personal attacks. I wish I could say the same for what some bloggers say about me.

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2. Ogan Gurel on August 6, 2007 9:37 AM writes...

Hi Derek,

Thanks for referencing this article. I, too, have met Bob Goldberg and Peter Pitts and I have found them, in person, to be very gracious and hospitable. As such, it was not easy to write such a piece and hence that is why I approached it from the perspective of facts (e.g. a statistical analysis) rather than devolving into yet another round of personal attacks.

My main point - which you have also accurately summarized - is that this issue is too serious and undeserving of what often characterizes blatantly political blogs - the "choir" as you put it. And to the extend that CPMI's very important messages are compromised by ad hominem approaches, they perform a disservice to the very constituencies (including patients) that they seek to represent.

The latter part of my piece made reference to Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I. I did this for three reasons: (1) I know Peter Pitts is very learned and does at time mix literary allusions in his pieces, (2) the tirade against Falstaff is a perfect example of ad hominem attack that should be relegated to adolescent banter rather than a discussion of drug safety and FDA reform and finally (3) to emphasize the concept of redemption as the immature Prince Hal graduates to become a great King.

I have followed the CMPI website and I believe that they have actually toned down some of the rhetoric. I don't have the time to do another piece but I think they deserve my acknowledgement of that even if it is only anecdotal. I also know some of the board members of CMPI and insofar as they may have learned about this piece, perhaps they have provided their wise counsel in this regard.

Once again, Derek, I appreciate your reference to the Life Sciences Daily blog - it, like yourself, covers quite a range of topics and while I am certainly not the last word on any of these, I do strive to keep my arguments as logical and as factual as possible.

Thanks again,


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3. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on August 6, 2007 12:58 PM writes...

As a left-leaning biopharma worker bee I'm interested in following what is said in the blogosphere about the industry and I find drugwanks unreadable. Their science is probably a little bit better than the average neo-con Gore basher but it's hard to tell because it's so diluted by rhetorical blather.
Anyone interested in actually learning something about the issues our industry faces would be better served reading your old posts than their new ones. Keep up the good work, and thanks.

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4. hibob on August 6, 2007 1:57 PM writes...

from the DrugWonks masthead: "a forum offering rigorous and compelling research on the most critical issues affecting current drug policy." Am I the only one who is instantly suspicious of people who describe their own opinions as rigorous and compelling?
Is there any publicly available information on the funding for CMPI ? They don't disclose it on their website. Their staff is well salted with people from a PR background, though.

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5. Hap on August 8, 2007 4:06 PM writes...

Ad hominem attacks are sort of appropriate when someone has made claims with no supporting data and no previous knowledge/reputation - if their work can't be criticized for its technical aspects (because there are none, or none with sufficient data to validate or invalidate, although that is grounds in itself for complaint), then one has to look at the person suggesting it to evaluate the probability that they know what they are talking about and mean what they say. Do they have the background to gain the knowledge to claim what they are claiming? Have they been trustworthy in the past - have they claimed things in the past, and been dishonest in doing so? How often have they claimed things accurately? These aren't the only things to look at, but they help people to determine how much time to spend thinking about something.

Nissen might be correct and he might be wrong, but he probably isn't operating in bad faith and he could know what he's talking about. Trudeau doesn't have any background to know what he claims, has been demonstrably wrong in the past, and has had a long history of participation in dishonest schemes to get money, so unless his claims have data to back them up, they aren't work the air it took to speak them. It's possible that he could be correct, but the probability of that is really small.

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6. David Hamilton on August 9, 2007 2:52 PM writes...

The far left and the far right have in common a humorless and unshakeable faith in their own righteousness that renders them not just unconvincing, but deeply boring. I can never figure out if places like Drug Wonks really think they're changing minds and influencing debate, or if -- much like the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal -- they're simply a rallying point for the faithful and a place for fellow ideologues to sharpen their rhetorical skills. If the former, they're deluded, and if the latter, they're activists, and not ones with the best interests of science or medicine at heart.

I did find it amusing that in Robert Goldberg's "reply" to you and Ogan (see here in case you missed it), that he concludes:

We are ticking everybody off it seems. So I guess we are doing something write.

And this after a post devoted to touting their diligence and serious-mindedness! Sure, it's a small typo, but it seemed telling to me.

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