Kaiser Fung on How Drug Companies Can Tweak Data to Their Advantage

Kaiser Fung, Associate Program Director for the Master of Science in Applied Analytics, cowrote an article in The Daily Beast, explaining how randomized controlled trials in drug testing can be used by pharmaceutical companies to their advantage.

Fung described the placebo effect: the mysterious psychological phenomenon by which merely taking a drug can have beneficial effects, regardless of the drug's actual curative properties. Researchers have to take this into account when testing a new drug's efficacy, so they divide subjects in two random groups: one is given the drug and one is given a sugar pill. But drug companies can tweak the data by “artificially suppressing the placebo effect. The consultants, we are told, train scientists to avoid doing 'things that enhance expectations' of trial participants. Examples of discouraged behaviors include ‘inappropriately optimistic’ body language, looking patients in the eye, and shaking patients’ hands.” By suppressing the placebo effect, these scientists hope to make the new drug appear more effective than what it actually is.

Even in this “golden age of data” we are said to live in, Fung concludes, it is still possible to “game and manipulate” data, and that “the statistics community has yet to come to terms with this emerging reality.”

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