I've been thinking about pharmaceutical companies lately, when I heard this quote from Barry Schwartz, in response to issues surrounding his own claim to fame:
It is no doubt true that scientists sometimes seek popular audiences prematurely — before their claims have been adequately tested by peers. I, myself, may have been guilty of this when I wrote “The Paradox of Choice” a decade ago. I believe that in most cases, the reason for this is that the scientist believes she has found something out that, while hardly certain, will improve the lives of at least some people.
I think there is a lot of wisdom in this idea, and in an age when we see the harsh effects of public judgment, we ought to be very careful. Of course, for public figures who did something wrong, refuse to apologize, and personally benefited from the mistake, people jump in and criticize. That's appropriate, sometimes. But when John Oliver ridicules the CEO that tried to solve opioid addiction, I think he might have gone too far.
There was really no way to know that reducing the intensity of a high wouldn't help as much as we thought. Initial studies confirmed common sense, that the less intense experience would trap fewer souls in cycles of addiction and grief.
Oxycontin didn't have the effects we wanted, but shouldn't we blow the trumpet and get the word out when it seems we could do something like that? Of course the scholarship isn't going to be perfect – but knowing to a certitude would take time, and cost lives. The only real worry is that it's worse than morphine.
Then doctors got excited and prescribed more opioids, thinking they were safer. It's possible we're in a worse place than we would have been otherwise, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But to lay that all on the doorstep of someone who was trying to help is somewhat monstrous. He got a tough question wrong – not through malice, just because taking the years to make sure the answer was correct would have brought even more condemnation if he was right.
In general, we ought to tighten our standards for when it's okay to take strangers to task. They have to be public figures, yes. But if they weren't malicious, it should involve career negligence, and if they were hurt by the issue we shouldn't pile on. Is it too much to ask we keep an eye on goals? So many times people do bad things because their strange circumstance demands it of them. We need people with courage to do the right thing anyway. But if someone just made a mistake, that's different. We all make mistakes. When we see someone else is trying to do the right thing, for basically the right reasons, we ought to give them our forgiveness easier. And someone trying to help people with terrible pain, and prevent those people from getting addicted to painkillers, well, that person sounds like one of the good guys.