McArdle follow up.

I know, I know.  As the parent of a young child, I’ve internalized the lesson that one should not reinforce bad behavior by reacting to it; inappropriate cries for attention need to be tamed, not rewarded.

But without such pleas for notice, where would Megan McArdle be?  Peacefully enjoying her vacation might be one answer.

But no.  There is no rest for the loud, uninformed and beleaguered.

Hence the post linked above, emerging from what I hope (truly!) is a secure, undisclosed beach.  In its one paragraph she responds to (one) of her critics, Ben Domenech, defending herself by linking to a post by the delightfully named Derek Lowe,*  a scientist involved in commercial drug discovery.  That post specifically responds to Domenech, unfortunately mostly with anecdote, not data (which may be why McArdle finds his writing so congenial), and I think it does much less for McArdle’s case on the one point in dispute than she would have her readers believe.** More significantly, this “defense”, does not address the many, substantive eviscerations of McArdle’s maundering about health care reform as opposed to drug discovery.  See, e.g. Ezra Klein’s takedown as a type specimen of the genre.

But what is most striking — almost Palin-like — is that with each iteration of McArdle’s attempt at argument, a new howler turns up.***  This time, with only  a paragraph to work with, she still managed to throw in this line:

The broad point is that basic research and developing a working drug are two different activities, and neither is “real” innovation.


I was fairly gobsmacked by the paragraph in her prior post on this topic, when she (somehow) derived from the fact that we are all going to die that we should not express concern about global warming if we don’t also do so about medical innovation.

dada ain’t in it, man…not even at the climax of the great race between the sewing machine and the typewriter.

But this one tops that prior remark for sheer uninterpretability.

Take it bit by bit:  basic research is an activity….check.

drug development is an activity….check.

They aren’t the same…check…sort of.  (It’s a subject for a different post, but one of the most striking features of modern biology is the permeability of what were once clearly distinct intellectual categories.****)

And now to the conclusion of this syllogism:  neither new knowledge developed by fundamental research nor new useful inventions to be released to the world are innovation — at least not the “real” kind. (Scare quotes in the original.)

It doesn’t make any more sense laid out on the slab, does it?

If the identification of therapeutic targets and potential compounds to address those targets is fake innovation, and if the transformation of basic knowledge and technique from a range of disciplines into clinically available therapies is also fake innovation, what the hell is real?

Maybe I’m just too much a muggle.  Maybe the only true innovation McArdle would recognize is the magic wand she waves in this post, the one that makes her errors of fact and interpretation somehow simply vanish.   Here it is, the errant and erring bloggers analogue to that first spell with which novice wizards and witches learn they can defy the constraints that bind those among us more tediously grounded to mere fact.  She writes:

Such is blogging.

Well so it is, if you do it badly, with contempt for your audience.

*Every time I read Lowe’s name or byline, I can’t help wondering what this genial fellow is doing branching out into such a distinctively different endeavor than the one in which in 2004 he warmed the heart of every Boston sports nut.

**In essence, Lowe defends McArdle’s description of the drug development process against Domenech by arguing that drug companies do engage in more than mere industrial research, that they do in fact perform real science of one sort or another.  Which is another way of saying that McArdle got both sides of her false dichotomy wrong:  not only do academic and government researchers advance specific compounds towards clinical applications, big Pharma has a (self) interest in research at least fundamental enough to understand the critical ideas driving new clinical approaches.  Fail twice.

That said, I think Lowe is skipping over (and why not, given that this is all an at least partly polemical exchange) a basic fact of modern biomedical research:  a lot of what happens to drive an academic idea to a commercial application occurs in institutions neither he nor McArdle discusses:  the small biotech companies founded straight out of academic labs and or built up in intimate partnership with such labs.  These are not academic institutions; the people involved are in it for twinned reasons:  making money and providing the entrepeneur/researcher with the creative satisfaction of seeing an idea become a thing of value in the world.  (Trust me (the Hollywood term for f*ck you, I know)…both motivations powerfully drive folks in this area).

Such companies, if the work pans out, often become acquisition targets for big Pharma and big Biotech.   (See, e.g., this deal.) All of which is to say that the link between fundamental work paid for by the taxpayer mostly, and big profit-making concerns is both more complex and much more intimate than Lowe describes — and certainly than McArdle expresses.

***This quality of McArdle’s writing gives me an excuse to link again to one of my favorite texts, this collection of actual quotes from British military fitness reports.  Several could be said to apply to McArdle’s efforts, though perhaps this one is most appropriate at this juncture:

When she opens her mouth, it seems that this is only to change whichever foot was previously in there.

****It makes much more sense to say that much basic research in molecular biology is now clearly understood as the first step in a wide range of drug development programs.  For one example at the top of my mind due to some recent digging:  Protein folding questions have long been seen as basic research of the most fundamental sort, not least because of their complexity and intractability.  And yet, research now on the genetics and molecular sequence of events driving protein misfolding is leading directly to the identification of potential drug candidates for devastating disease, among them Parkinson’s…as documented in the brief films by my students to which I linked in my last McArdle screed.  That’s one example among thousands, just the one closest to my recent reporting.

Image:  Advertising postcard for the Blickensderfer typewriter, undated, via the Virtual Typewriter Museum.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Medicine, Policy, ridicule, Stupidity

6 Comments on “McArdle follow up.”

  1. KevinD Says:

    They seem to not know of institutions like Scripps Research, which is non-profit and gets a lot of money from fundraising.

    • Tom Says:

      It is easy remain ignorant of things it is in your interest not to know. I forget the original of that line, but it’s true for all the lack of attribution….

  2. Ben A Says:

    I fear your contempt for McCardle is leading you to misinterpret her writing. I take McCardle’s point to be that both academic research and industrial research are sufficient. Both are important. So if you say “the only *real* innovation is pharma innovation”, you’re wrong. Likewise is you say the only *real* innovation is academic innovation.” Indeed, the point is almost exactly the same as your fourth footnote. So the two of you agree on that. Where you appear to disagree is what percentage of the identification of drug candidates come from industrial work. And whether as a general statement it’s right to say that academic science and industrial science are focused on different, non-overlapping activities. While there are exceptions (Scripps, the Broad), it’s accurate as a general statement.

    On the start up point, I think Lowe and McCardle would agree that start-up biotech and a healthy VC funding environment are essential to innovation. But again, an industrial environment (the biotech) and non-academic funding sources (VC) are typically required to bring an academic proof-of-principle to a drug candidate. It should not be necessary to point out that absent integrated pharma and biotech cos as potential acquirers, there would be much less venture funding of start-ups…

    • Tom Says:

      Thanks for the comment; we disagree, but that’s what makes the discussion interesting.

      I think, to defend myself a little, that my contempt follows rather than leads my perception of McArdle’s deeply flawed arguments on this and other matters.

      In particular, I think you are overgenerous to McArdle. See her third post on this subject, which I chose not to deal with as I felt I’d hit this particular nonsense on the head enough (though I realize that it is a tactical manouver if one is losing an argument to keep repeating variations on a theme until the otherside gets bored and moves on, life is to short to react everytime someone says something stupid on the internet). In that she defends her earlier claims by comparing research spending by big pharma to other tech companies (together with a wholly spurious comparison to federal research spending). Put the three together and you get a complete mischaracterization of the objects of academic and industrial research, confusion about the nature of innovation in this or any other technical area and red herring. No where does she display any actual knowledge about the fundamental biological issues that lie behind molecular medical research, nor the issues in the actual process of industrializing a fundamental advance.

      There are a lot of particular aspects of interest in that, and the role of big pharma as my reporting shows it (and just for the record, my first brush with this whole area came in stories about Judah Folkman and Bob Langer in 1984 and ’85 respectively), but the take away for me is that (a) McArdle has not demonstrated that she’s done any of the work to bring her up to a state of basic background understanding here, and that (b) her opinions on this matter are systematically distorting her presentation of the role of publicly funded research in the drug discovery and medical innovation fields.

      You and I don’t disagree that private ventures are needed to develop modern innovation. Where we may disagree, and where I certainly dispute McArdle, is that the present structure of the private market, with essentially taxpayer subsidized and outsize profits for certain drug companies is an effective component of the drug development pipeline.

      But again, such disputes are part of the fun of the blogosphere.

      • Ben A Says:

        Hey Tom,

        Thanks for the response. We do disagree. I don’t particularly want to debate the person, Megan Mccardle, or her particular worthiness. What I do think is worth discussing is the role of industry and academia in pre-clinical drug development. Let me offer the following *cartoon*:

        Academic labs do fundamental molecular biology research: identification of targets, exploration of pathways.

        Pharma and biotech develop hits against targets, do hit-to-lead optimization, and do the pre-clinical work supporting drug candidacy.

        Is this cartoon 100% true? No, it’s a cartoon. There are academic institutions set up to do HTS. Occasionally a molecule comes out of a lab. Likewise, every so often an industrial lab identifies a molecular target, or publishes path-breaking basic research. But as a rule of thumb, it’s OK.

        That’s a picture you originally attacked as misguided, and I think it isn’t misguided. Lowe likewise thinks it isn’t misguided. I think it’s important because it points out an important point: academia and industrial research, in the main, aren’t set up to do the same thing. They are compliments, not substitutes. Do you agree with that?

        I’m really not sure that I understand (and thus don’t know if I agree or disagree) with the core sentence of your your last paragraph,:

        the present structure of the private market, with essentially taxpayer subsidized and outsize profits for certain drug companies is an effective component of the drug development pipeline.

        I think here we’re getting to the meat of what bugs you about McCardle. Can you elaborate?

  3. kang dwi Says:

    great. i like it

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