Cherry Picking or Crucial Counterbalance? The Heated Debate Over Medical Misinfo between McGill Univ. & GreenMedInfo.com

Views 3947

This is the story of how conflicts of interest, accusations of misinformation, and questions of credibility have collided, leaving the public to wonder: who can we trust?

In the high-stakes world of medical research and education, where the pursuit of truth can have life-altering consequences, a bitter debate has emerged between a prestigious university, a controversial alternative health advocate, and the powerful pharmaceutical industry.  

At the heart of this controversy lies the article "Popular Health Guru Sayer Ji Curates the Scientific Literature with His Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy," written by Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator affiliated with McGill University's Office for Science and Society (OSS).1 In this piece, Jarry argues that Sayer Ji, founder of the natural health website GreenMedInfo.com, selectively curates scientific studies on his platform to support his views on natural treatments while downplaying contradictory evidence. He asks "Can we trust Ji to curate the biomedical literature for us?,"then describes Ji's database as "A colossal exercise in cherry picking."

Sayer Ji has openly acknowledged that his website, GreenMedInfo.com, has a "methodological bias." He describes the site as an intentional counterbalance to the pharmaceutical industry's "cherry picking" of research. According to Ji, the pharmaceutical industry creates an unfair playing field through the following practices:

  1. Selective funding: Companies may fund studies that are more likely to produce favorable results for their products, while not funding studies that could potentially show negative outcomes.
  2. Selective publication: Companies may choose to publish only the studies that show positive results and withhold studies with negative or inconclusive findings, leading to publication bias.
  3. Selective reporting: Within a study, companies may report only the most favorable outcomes or subgroup analyses, while omitting data that is less supportive of their product.
  4. Influencing study design: Companies may design studies in ways that are more likely to produce positive results, such as using inappropriate comparators, selecting favorable patient populations, or using surrogate endpoints instead of clinically meaningful outcomes.
  5. Spin in reporting: Companies may present study results in a way that emphasizes the positive findings while downplaying the limitations, adverse effects, or negative outcomes.
  6. Ghost authorship: Companies may hire medical writers to draft scientific articles favorable to their products, which are then attributed to academic researchers to lend credibility.

These practices can distort the available scientific evidence and lead to an overestimation of the benefits and an underestimation of the risks of certain drugs or medical interventions. Additionally, there is both a lack of capital flowing into research on non-patented, natural substances and a downward pressure to suppress publication of pro-natural or complementary medicine promoting findings. According to Ji, this makes the Greenmedinfo.com project all the more important in that it highlights those studies that are either ignored, overlooked or actively suppressed by the pharmaceutical industry dominated medical research publishing commmunity.

Jarry also contends that Ji's lack of formal scientific training and potential biases undermine the credibility of the information presented on GreenMedInfo.com. This criticism could be interpreted as an ad hominen attack, as the 90,000+ peer-reviewed study abstracts indexed on Ji's website originate directly from the National Library of Medicine, and speak for themselves.1

However, McGill University and its affiliates, including the OSS and its director, Dr. Joe Schwarcz, have faced their own criticisms regarding potential conflicts of interest. McGill has received significant funding from pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, and various others that have collectively provided over $5 million in research funding to the university in recent years.2,3 Dr. Schwarcz himself has disclosed that the OSS has received funding from several major pharmaceutical companies, including Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline.4 While Dr. Schwarcz maintains that the OSS operates independently and that its content and views are not influenced by its funding sources, critics argue that these financial ties create potential conflicts of interest that cannot be ignored.4

Adding to the controversy is McGill University's publication of content on the "Disinformation Dozen," a group of individuals identified by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) as responsible for the majority of "anti-vaccination content" on social media platforms.5 The CCDH report accused these individuals, including Sayer Ji, of spreading misinformation about vaccines, claiming that they are ineffective and dangerous; claims which have now been validated by a growing body of publicly available adverse events reporting and scientific research.5

However, the accuracy of the CCDH report has been challenged by social media giant Meta (formerly Facebook). In a statement, Meta disputed the CCDH's assertion that the "Disinformation Dozen" were responsible for 73% of online vaccine misinformation on their platforms, stating that there was no evidence to support this claim.6 Meta argued that the 12 individuals in question were actually responsible for only about 0.05% of all views of vaccine-related content on Facebook and criticized the CCDH report's methodology, suggesting that it lacked clear explanations for crucial aspects of the analysis.6

This rebuttal from Meta raises important questions about the accuracy and fairness of the CCDH report and, by extension, the McGill University content and editorial veracity that relied on its findings. It underscores the need for rigorous, unbiased research and reporting on these complex issues, as well as the importance of considering multiple perspectives and sources of information.

The debate surrounding McGill University, Sayer Ji, and the pharmaceutical industry highlights the challenges of navigating conflicts of interest and potential biases in the realm of medical education and research. While it is essential to critically evaluate the qualifications and potential motivations of individuals like Sayer Ji who promote alternative health views, it is equally important to scrutinize the financial ties and potential conflicts of interest of academic institutions and researchers within the conventional medical establishment, especially when they disparage or defame individuals or organizations whose values or agendas do not align with the pharmaceutical-medical industrial complex.

Transparency is crucial in this regard. Just as Sayer Ji's lack of scientific training and potential biases are relevant to evaluating the information on GreenMedInfo.com, the pharmaceutical industry ties of McGill University, Dr. Joe Schwarcz, and the OSS should be openly acknowledged and considered when assessing their critiques of alternative health advocates and their research output.

Furthermore, the controversy surrounding the CCDH report on the "Disinformation Dozen" and Meta's rebuttal demonstrates the importance of rigorous, evidence-based reporting and the need to carefully examine the methodologies and conclusions of studies that aim to identify sources of misinformation. It is crucial to approach such claims with a critical eye and to seek out multiple perspectives before drawing definitive conclusions.

Ultimately, the most responsible approach to navigating this complex landscape is to prioritize evidence-based, unbiased information from sources with minimal conflicts of interest. This requires a commitment to transparency from all parties involved, including academic institutions, individual researchers, and alternative health advocates. It also necessitates a willingness to engage in open, honest dialogue and to critically examine claims from all sides of the debate.

In conclusion, the debate between McGill University, Sayer Ji, and the key role played by the pharmaceutical industry, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of transparency, accountability, and critical thinking in the realm of medical education and research. We hope that in the future organizations like McGill University will be open to a face-to-face public debate on the topic, as it is only through constructive dialogue that real progress can be made in serving the best interests of the public at large. Faculty or officers at McGill University can contact Sayer Ji at [email protected] to accept this invitation.


References

1. Jonathan Jarry, "Popular Health Guru Sayer Ji Curates the Scientific Literature with His Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy," McGill Office for Science and Society, July 11, 2019, https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/pseudoscience/popular-health-guru-sayer-ji-curates-scientific-literature-his-bachelors-degree-philosophy.

2. "Merck Donates $4 Million to McGill University," McGill University, August 12, 2013, https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/merck-donates-4-million-mcgill-university-229540.

3. "McGill researchers receive over $5M to explore new directions in research," McGill University, July 17, 2020, https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/mcgill-researchers-receive-over-5m-explore-new-directions-research-324265.

4. Laura Hensley, "Big pharma pours millions into medical schools -- here's how it can impact education," Global News, August 12, 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/5734529/big-pharma-donations-medical-schools/.

5. Jonathan Jarry, "Dozen Misguided Influencers Spread Most of the Anti-Vaccination Content on Social Media," McGill Office for Science and Society, March 31, 2021, https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/covid-19/dozen-misguided-influencers-spread-most-anti-vaccination-content-social-media.

6. Monika Bickert, "How We're Taking Action Against Vaccine Misinformation Superspreaders," Meta, August 18, 2021, https://about.fb.com/news/2021/08/taking-action-against-vaccine-misinformation-superspreaders/.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.

Key Research Topics

This website is for information purposes only. By providing the information contained herein we are not diagnosing, treating, curing, mitigating, or preventing any type of disease or medical condition. Before beginning any type of natural, integrative or conventional treatment regimen, it is advisable to seek the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.

© Copyright 2008-2024 GreenMedInfo.com, Journal Articles copyright of original owners, MeSH copyright NLM.