Capitalism meets Scientism: A too convenient marriage?
Big Pharma, Big Media, Big Politics, and other forces of big capitalism have been harnessing the false accuracy of Covid-19 pandemic statistics to create a highly inaccurate impression of what’s going on, in the service of maximizing profits and power, and thereby exacerbating already very serious issues with corruption of the medical industry, media, politics, and other industries
The corruption of science by money is not a new concern. In fact, it’s become so embedded as a problem that it’s almost cliche. Former editor and chief executive of the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ), Richard Smith, wrote an essay way back in 2005 that says it all right in its title: “Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies.” (He followed up in an even more scathing essay in 2021, suggesting that: “It may be time to move from assuming that research has been honestly conducted and reported to assuming it to be untrustworthy until there is some evidence to the contrary.”).
Smith wasn’t alone in his concerns. “Journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry”, wrote Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, another highly prestigious medical journal, in March 2004. That same year, Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, another prestigious academic medicine publication, also wrote that medical journals were “primarily a marketing machine” and Big Pharma was co-opting “every institution that might stand in its way.”
The late Arnold Relman, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, made a similar statement in 2002, but highlighted also the corruption of the teaching profession: “The medical profession is being bought by the pharmaceutical industry, not only in terms of the practice of medicine, but also in terms of teaching and research.”
So what’s happened since these serious warning calls, what can fairly be called a kind of “code red” moment, from almost twenty years ago?
Well, the problems have only gotten worse since then, and during the pandemic started in early 2020 the normal scrutiny, albeit generally tepid, that would be applied by the press and government to various industries and, in particular, Big Pharma, has all but disappeared.
Pfizer, the US-based global pharmaceutical juggernaut that manufactures the most used Covid-19 vaccine in the western world, has the dubious honor of being responsible for the single largest criminal fine in US history, at $2.3 billion (for criminal fraud in advertising), as well as an astounding $10.2 billion total of fines and penalties since 2000, for dozens of violations. $5.6 billion of that total were for safety violations. Hmmm.
Pfizer earned $36 billion from sales of its Covid-19 vaccines in 2021 alone. It expects at least $32 billion in sales in 2022, and $54 billion in combined revenue from vaccines and its new “Covid pill,” Paxlovid. That brings the total Covid-19 treatment revenue for just this one company to $90 billion for 2021 and 2022, dwarfing their $10.2 billion in fines over the last twenty years.
Moderna, another US-based company, was not far behind Pfizer profits with about $18 billion from vaccine sales in 2021 — with $10 billion of that total coming directly from US taxpayers in terms of R&D for developing the Moderna vaccine, and later agreements to buy the vaccine from Moderna. Moderna expects at least $19 billion in vaccine sales in 2022.
These are record-shattering profits even for Big Pharma, which was already one of the most profitable industries in the US and the world, by far, before the pandemic.
These and other pharmaceutical companies and healthcare companies like insurance providers and hospitals, comprise the U.S. “healthcare system” that employed about 11% of all workers — before the pandemic — and 24% of all government spending. According to the Brookings Institution, healthcare spending accounts for about 10% of combined corporate and consumer spending. Government, corporate and consumer spending combined resulted in about 18% of all U.S. spending being spent on healthcare in 2018 (Figure 1).
This is up from just 5% in 1960. And in the pandemic it has, of course, risen significantly higher still.
The result of this kind of money being made and spent, when combined with a highly concentrated corporate news media system, is an unholy mix of capitalism and “scientism” that has had dramatically negative consequences — and it will only get worse unless people start to wake up and become more discerning about the information they consume, believe and act on.
In the American version of democracy (the Economist Democracy Index now ranks the US a “flawed democracy”), money talks. Money equals speech and lobbying power.
Big Pharma and other healthcare companies wield by far the biggest lobbying power in the US, spending over $300 million per year on federal lobbying alone (Figure 2), with electronics manufacturing a distant second place.
The massive increase in revenues for Big Pharma from the pandemic are as certain as the sky is blue to result in a huge increase in lobbying and thus political power by Big Pharma. We have created, with our public policies, an almost infinitely large feeding trough for Big Pharma, and that energy will be turned into massive efforts to grow that almost infinite trough even larger.
Let’s now take a look at “scientism” before diving further into the widening corruption of today’s capitalism in our flawed democracy.
What is scientism?
Scientism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” In the pandemic context, scientism manifests as an over-reliance on data and the methods of science, without appropriate caveats, creating a false sense of confidence in the accuracy of stated numbers and scientific conclusions.
In other words, the normal error bars and confidence ranges that good science includes (known generally as “error analysis”) have been all but absent in the pandemic. This creates an impression that all of the numbers regularly cited in the media and by government officials are far more accurate than they actually are.
The constant drumbeat of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths creates an impression that these numbers are reasonably accurate. There is, however, good evidence to suggest that the numbers are, and have been throughout the pandemic, wildly inaccurate.
The inaccuracy started with the highly unusual choice of defining a Covid-19 “case” based only on a positive lab test, rather than symptoms AND a lab test, as has been the case for almost all respiratory ailments historically. That major source of inaccuracy was vastly exacerbated through very faulty Covid-19 tests. Then exacerbated further through the choice to test widely among asymptomatic people, which is a recipe for achieving a vast majority of false positives.
So each step of the pandemic data chain has been vastly exaggerated. This essay (authored by me, Blaine Williams, M.D., and Daniel Howard, Ph.D) goes into the specifics of how Covid-19 statistics are grossly exaggerated, and argues that “cases”, “hospitalizations,” and “deaths” attributed to Covid-19 should all be downgraded by about 90% for a more accurate accounting.
This essay describes in more detail how the public headlines about 900,000 “Covid-19 deaths” are vastly exaggerated and, if we used the same causal linkage standard being used to challenge assertions about vaccine “breakthrough” deaths (where a fully vaccinated person gets Covid-19 and dies from it), would lead to the conclusion that a small minority of this 900,000 figure are actually caused by Covid-19.
CDC director Rachel Walensky argued in early 2022, in the context of vaccine “breakthrough” deaths from Covid-19, that most of these deaths occurred in patients with numerous preexisting comorbidities. This issue was examined in a CDC study from early 2022 (Yek et al. 2022). Walensky stated:
[CDC published] a study of 1.2 million people who are vaccinated between December and October. And demonstrated that severe [Covid-19] disease occurred in about 0.015% of the people who were — received their primary series — and death in 0.0003% of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75% [it was actually 78%], occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with.
This same logic applies, however, for all “deaths involving Covid-19” (which is the figure tracked by CDC and reported on by mainstream media), and not just those associated with breakthrough cases, but it’s even worse. CDC’s own data show that on average there were 4.0 other causes of death (comorbidities) in US “deaths involving Covid-19.”
So it’s not only 78% of deaths that had 4.0 additional comorbidities, as CDC found in the context of vaccine-linked Covid-19 deaths, but 100% of deaths being attributed to Covid-19 more generally have had 4.0 additional comorbidities.
This shows that the large majority of deaths attributed to Covid-19 would have very likely happened anyway. This does not make them less tragic. But it does significantly change our judgments about the harm from Covid-19, which is revealed by this logic to have been significantly exaggerated.
Big Pharma and other industry funding of science is massive
Returning to our main theme of how capitalism has corrupted the scientific process, it is astounding but true that US markets provide at least 2/3 of global Big Pharma profit. This was highlighted in a 2021 podcast interview with John Abramson, author of the 2022 book Sickening: How Big Pharma Destroyed U.S. Healthcare. (The podcast and the book are must-listen and must-read for anyone concerned about our collective future).
The medical industry is awash with Big Pharma and other industry money in normal years, as discussed above, let alone during the pandemic. The commentators quoted at the beginning of this essay have, after decades of experience, come to the view that corruption of medical science has become such a serious problem that all medical research should be considered suspect until proven legitimate through very close scrutiny.
This is an extraordinary state of affairs and should itself be considered a public health crisis, as well as an obvious crisis of capitalism itself, let alone science.
A study published in 2021 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found, by examining public databases of voluntarily disclosed payments, that medical research publication editors were paid in many cases direct payments by Big Pharma that exceeded $100,000 per year, with a median of about $28,000 for non-research payments and about $39,000 for research payments, both directly from Big Pharma companies. The study concludes: “Industry payments to journal editors are common and often large, particularly for certain subspecialties. Journals should consider the potential impact of such payments on public trust in published research.” This is, shall we say, a mild under-statement.
It’s possible that Big Pharma payments to editors and researchers are substantially larger because much of this funding is often not even disclosed. A 2022 study found that 81% of researchers who published in NEJM and JAMA, the two most prominent medical journals in the US and arguably the world, in 2017 received undisclosed funding — which means it wasn’t reported to the database just discussed.
It’s hard — impossible, in fact — to fully quantify the degree to which Big Pharma and other healthcare companies have distorted medical science to their profit motive. What is clear, however, from the numbers reviewed here, is that the distortion of good science is far more significant than it should be. And it should, as an a priori rule of thumb, cast doubt on the degree to which we take published medical studies, including all Covid-19 vaccine trials, on face value without a high degree of scrutiny.
In fact, a whistleblower, Brook Jackson, shared her experience at one clinical trial site contracted by Pfizer for its vaccine trials in the US. She told the reporter (also published by BMJ, clearly the medical journal with the most interest in exposing medical industry corruption) that:
[Ventavia, the company working for Pfizer] falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial. Staff who conducted quality control checks were overwhelmed by the volume of problems they were finding. After repeatedly notifying Ventavia of these problems, the regional director, Brook Jackson, emailed a complaint to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ventavia fired her later the same day. Jackson has provided The BMJ with dozens of internal company documents, photos, audio recordings, and emails.
The new era of medical panic porn
In “normal” years, Big Pharma and many other industries traffic in fear in order to increase sales. Fear is the basis for a large amount of Big Pharma profits. But fear is not new: it’s a tried and true tactic to achieve desired change in the world, whether that is drug sales, starting wars, or electing politicians.
What is different during this pandemic is the degree to which the fear-hype machine ramped up to a fever pitch. Medical “panic porn” reached heights never before seen.
A 2021 book sums up most of the relevant data: The United States of Fear, by psychiatrist Mark McDonald. He writes:
In the extreme, when fear spreads throughout an entire society, the effect is paralyzing. Decision-making becomes irrational and reactive. The sensationalizing of outlier events and the pursuit of safety supplants sound public policy. Media begin covering the “fear story” and serving it to their audience on a regular basis. Fear-driven official pronouncements evoke more fear among the citizenry, who demand more protection from politicians. A vicious cycle ensues. Mass hysteria develops, and people lose their capacity to think and act rationally.
I won’t delve into the debate over mass hysteria or “mass formation psychosis,” because I agree that it is indeed reasonable for many or even most people, given the widespread media and government officials’ approach of exaggerating almost every aspect of the pandemic, to be very fearful of the virus since early 2020. Most people do not have the capacity or the confidence to research reliable statistics to determine the real risk level from the virus or its variants to them or their loved ones — which is very significantly lower, to the vast majority of us, than the media coverage and public health announcements would have us believe.
When Big Media and Big Government, joined by and in many cases fed by Big Pharma, appear to speak as basically one voice about the need to take the virus very seriously, death rates are high, to lockdown and “shelter in place” when told to, to wear masks indoors and outdoors, to test everyone everywhere all the time, and to remain fearful perhaps in perpetuity, it is not surprising that most of the public continues to live in fear and to take all of these pronouncements seriously.
It is, however, within the grasp of most people now, with the information available at their fingertips, to gain a better understanding of the severity of the virus (or lack thereof) and to start to push back against public officials and media outlets.
More generally, we badly need policy reform to change the approach that led to the vast exaggeration of the pandemic by public health officials, elected officials, and our media.
What can we do break up the unholy marriage of Capitalism and Scientism?
I’ve identified in previous essays specific policy reforms to end this pandemic — and to avoid future pandemics, which will surely happen soon and frequently given the new public health policy environment that was created in the US and around the world in early 2020.
In brief , my key recommendations are: 1) change the “case definition” for Covid-19, and all future variants, to require symptoms PLUS a positive test result (rather than only a positive test result); 2) stop testing asymptomatic people; 3) change the FDA’s “cycle threshold” guidance for all PCR tests from 40 to 30.
But the broader issues addressed in this essay, looking at what happens when scientism meets capitalism, require far more systemic changes. It requires limiting the role of lobbyists, the role of financial contributions to politicians, fully disclosing sources of advertising revenue, and perhaps breaking up the largest Big Pharma companies like Pfizer, Janssen, Novartis, Merck, Glaxo Smith Kline, and others.
It also requires a reexamination of our culture of “safety first,” which has backfired and created a world in which most people are fearful of so many things that they are barely living life at all. These attitudes are caused in many ways by our system of capitalism. Systemic changes will be required to move away from this life-strangling mentality. Charles Eisenstein has highlighted these issues beautifully in his works like The Ascent of Humanity and Climate: A New Story.
I don’t have all the solutions — no one does at this point. But clearly identifying the problem is a large step toward identifying possible solutions and then enacting them.