When It Comes to the Truth about Drug Addiction, Scientists Are ‘Breaking Bad’

Large scientific communities may not tell the whole truth when pursuing your tax dollars.
September 20, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes​.com on September 20, 2013.

Kudos to The New York Times for reporting, perhaps for the first time, that large scientific communities may not tell the whole truth when pursuing your tax dollars. The associated article is about drug addiction, or, rather, the lack of it when people have other ways of getting their jollies.

Applied scientists—i.e. pain management specialists, know this is self‐​evident. By far the most prescribed drug in the United States is the synthetic opioid hydrocodone. According to WebMd, an astounding 131,200,000 prescriptions were written for hydrocodone in 2010, the last year of record. Under the assumption that each one was probably for thirty pills and renewable once, that comes out to 7.8  billion doses in the U.S. every year. That’s 26 doses per man, woman and child. If this stuff were half as addictive as the DEA (OK, the AMC drama Breaking Bad is on my mind) and the political class think, there’d be a permanent traffic jam outside every emergency room in the nation.

As reported in the Times, the research of Dr. Carl Hart at Columbia University clearly shows why it’s not. Rather than behaving like rats pressing a lever for a high, regular crack cocaine users will simply forgo small doses for a few dollars, and “when he raised the alternative reward to $20, every single addict, of meth and crack alike, chose the cash.” As the crack users were confined to a hospital setting for several weeks, they couldn’t exactly use the money to go out and score more.

Hart notes that social setting and context are highly important. Rats kept alone without stimulation incessantly depress levers dispensing cocaine, but this behavior attenuates when they are in a more realistic environment. In other words, they quit when they can get their jollies other ways.

This is hardly surprising given the experience with synthetic opioids. But what is disquieting is the reluctance of the research community to admit it.

Dr. Hart explains why. According to the Times,

“Eighty to 90 percent of people are not negatively affected by drugs, but in the scientific literature nearly 100 percent of the reports are negative [affects],” Dr. Hart said. “There’s a skewed focus on pathology. We scientists know that we get more money if we keep telling Congress that we’re solving this terrible problem. We’ve played a less than honorable role in the war on drugs.”

Actually, scientists, politicians, crack users, people in pain, and everyone else are enslaved by the internal pleasure chemical, dopamine. Whatever releases it, we like. That would include good sex, drugs like cocaine, rock and roll, or a lifetime pass to the faculty lounge, thanks to a fistful of federal dollars, gained, for the most part, in an honest fashion, but also possibly gained by a “skewed focus” when politics determines a scientific paradigm.

Understand that scientists aren’t being “paid” by their grants (except, perhaps, for summer salary at institutions that pay less than 12 months, which includes virtually all of top‐​tier academia), but rather their employers are. Public universities generally tack on 50% “overhead” on federal grants and contracts, some of which turns into salary for academic departments that just can’t get on a federal gravy train.

Here’s what the grant‐​receiving scientist does get from his university: promotion, a lifetime job, raises maybe enough to afford a trophy wife or a SYGF (scandalously young girl friend), honors, free parking in the space for the gifted, and enough frequent flyer miles to forever avoid coach.

More dopamine, please.

Not that this is anything new (what is new is that it is being openly admitted to the Times). In 2005, Brian Martinson and two colleagues published the results of a survey of over 3,000 American scientists. Over 15% of the respondents admitted to “Changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source.” “Mid‐​career” scientists, the time of life when the financial incentive structure is most important, reported this behavior most frequently.

15% also said that they “Dropp[ed] observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.” 14% said they “Us[ed] inadequate or inappropriate research designs.” Martinson calls these examples of “serious misbehavior.”

While there’s surely some overlap between these groups, the number of “Scientists Behaving Badly” (that’s the title of Martinson’s article; if it were published a few years later, maybe it would have been “Scientists Breaking Bad”) is disturbing. This is self‐​reporting. Using the physician’s adage that you multiply the patient’s admitted alcohol or cigarette butt use by two, each of these figures is probably around 30%.

The authors concluded, “Our findings suggest that U.S. scientists engage in a range of behaviors extending far beyond falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism.” Like maybe lending the authority of science to some politically correct notion, in order to keep the money flowing, which lends more authority and keeps more money flowing.

Now, while that’s an addictive behavior, it certainly doesn’t apply to all scientists or all federally‐​funded fields.

But there are areas which are real occasions for scientific sin. Consider the ongoing horror show of global warming in the era of no global warming. Late next week, the United Nations is going to release its long‐​awaited fifth compendium on climate change. Judging from what’s been leaked, it looks like more Scientists Breaking Bad in the omnipresent quest for dopamine.

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