Manufacturing Truth

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

The Scientist magazine reported last week that pharma giant Merck had invented its own peer review medical journal in order to better hype its products; of 29 articles, almost two-thirds referred to Fosamax or Vioxx.

And we’re surprised?

Medical journals go to doctors as a reliable source for continuing education. The review of actual peers is how scientific discoveries and applications are vetted, and then embraced or rejected. So faking it, even if said source contained legitimate information but otherwise excluded other, potentially contradictory stuff, stops just shy of outright falsehood. Almost.

The mag in question sure looked legit (download Journal), even if the ads only hyped Merck products. An editorial board was conscripted, although it doesn’t seem that they actually did anything except get a paycheck. I think they charged money for the thing, just to add a daub of verisimilitude. 

We communicators have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. 

Back in the early days of my career (think Mad Men, only with shaggier hair), it was standard practice to organize faux public-interest groups, associations, or committees to help hype whatever our clients wanted to sell. We’d dummy up letterhead, list an address (usually our agency office), get a phone number, and start plastering the cosmos with purportedly objective insights.

This proud tradition hearkens to Ed Bernays’ founding of a group to promote greasy bacon as part of a "healthy breakfast" just past the start of the 20th Century. Some would say the practice goes back much further, to the Vikings use of it when they got disinterested ship captains to tell would-be immigrants that a barren, frozen, far-away island was "Greenland."

Now, it’s lots easier to do. The Internet means that anybody can pose as an expert on anything — a number of digerati advocates will claim that possessing an opinion literally makes someone so — and post/share what might seem like legitimate information. That’s why there are sites that give detailed, otherwise-believable support for even the most insane subjects. 

Atlantean aliens. Global conspiracies. The Information Age has given way to the Age of Chaos, as there’s no standard, reliable way online to discern fact from fiction. I wonder how many kids show up at school with reports citing web sites that "prove" the Holocaust didn’t happen, or that the Apollo 11 landing was faked on a Hollywood soundstage?

So this latest Merck nonsense is no surprise. But it’s still kinda scary, for a few reasons:

  • We’re talking about medicine. Any pharma company (or any company at all) has the right to publish its own propaganda, but the stealth nature of this program suggests that Merck was trying to deceive people. So go ahead a lie about whether your brand of golf balls really fly farther than another, but twisting the facts on whether prescription drugs work or not is, well, frightening
  • We’re talking about doctors and administrators. If these people can sell-out to the highest corporate bidder, how can we believe anything that they tell us? You think that your tap water is safe? Now, that web site that explains how fluoride is a plot to control your mind starts seeming a little more reasonable, eh?
  • We’re talking about a medical publisher. The ersatz Merck publication didn’t come from a smart ad agency, but rather a division of Elsevier, which publishes the real ones, too! How are we supposed to trust anything it produces?

The bigger issue, however, is that "truth" has become a commodity that anyone can manufacture, whether by a corporate flack in an office, or a lone nutcase typing in his mom’s basement.

Merck got caught, but thousands of similar offenses pass into our accepted versions of reality every single day.

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