My son was surfing about on Youtube as he does sometimes, and, as is his wont, he happened upon strange science sites that he seems to enjoy, which, inevitably, led him to some of those more fringe sites which love to put forward completely bizarre conspiracy theories. As I have repeatedly shown him how to debunk the more absurd of these claims, I am not particularly worried he will be taken in by such sites, though I do tend to listen along with him, both to point out the more nonsensical bits, and because I am amused by them myself. (As regular readers know, I am quite obsessed with the whole concept of conspiracy theories, why they arise, why they enjoy such popularity and so on. See "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", "Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories","False Flag Theories and 9/11", "Backwards Logic", "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida", "Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories", "Sleight of Hand", "Self-Sustaining Beliefs", "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise"and "Conspiracy Theories")
Today's topic was one I have heard a number of times, and one which suffers from a number of problems, the most obvious being that the basic premise is just not sound.
The theory in question? That "big pharma" is suppressing the cure for cancer.
Actually, there are theories about that "big pharma" is suppressing a number of cures, for cancer, for AIDS, for aging, what have you. name a health problem, and there is probably someone saying it was cured but the pharmaceutical industry makes too much from treating symptoms for them to allow the cure to be released. In many ways, it is the same as a number of other theories, such as the supposed scheme by "big oil" to keep secret a car that runs on water, or any number of other cheap energy solutions or perpetual motion machines, or else the similar theories that someone, often Nikola Tesla, discovered some form of cheap or free energy that is being kept secret by the electrical or oil companies. So, after mentioning one problem specific to the cancer question, I will try to address the more general subject, the idea that some secret miracle solution for a modern problem has been discovered, but suppressed out of greed.
The problem with the cancer claim in particular is that cancer, for all the public treats it as a disease, is actually a description of a symptom, or, at most, a category of diseases, grouped together due to similar symptoms. But all of those diseases, despite sharing the common symptom of uncontrolled cell growth, have countless origins, from viruses to toxins to genetic disorders to a combination of cell damage and replication errors, cancer is not a single disease and certainly does not have a single cause. To talk of "a cure for cancer" is as misleading as speaking of a "cure for fever". Fever, we all know, is a symptom of any number of problems, yet we forget the same is true of cancer, and so we allow ourselves to imagine there may be a single cure for "cancer", where we would never believe there was a single treatment which would cure all "fever". Thus, "the cure for cancer" is not only a pipe dream, but is a pipe dream so unlikely as to be impossible to realize.
But for the purpose of the rest of this argument, let us ignore that shortcoming, and imagine that we are really speaking about a cure for some specific cancer. It doesn't really matter for the rest oft he argument. Since we are going to be talking about the theory that greedy industries of various types are hiding miracle solutions, we can, for the moment, ignore all the specifics.
So, let us look at the generic claim, that there are problems, be it diseases, or the demand for oil or electricity, shortages of energy, or what have you that are profitable for various companies, which are so invested in these problems that they hide these solutions. It doesn't matter if ti the cure for cancer, or AIDS or a car that runs on static electricity int he air or some other perpetual motion machine. Let us look at the problem in a generic way.
The first thing you might notice is, in general, companies make money, not from perpetuating a problem, but from providing solutions. Now, in some cases, these answers are short term, but we don't usually view that as evil. We don't blame grocers from only treating starvation by providing food rather than teaching us to grow our own. On the other hand, we also don't believe grocers are sabotaging home gardens as unfair competition. In this case, because it doesn't involve bogeymen like "big pharma" and "big oil", and because we may actually know a grocer, and have daily contact with the issue, we are forced to exercise common sense. Unlike, say, when we talk about magical cures for cancer.
Unfortunately, when dealing with unfamiliar, large issues, and with groups we tend to treat as villains, we lose contact with common sense, and begin to believe nonsense.
Now, let us look at the past and ask ourselves if, in the past, solutions were found which destroyed other industries, and yet which were not suppressed. We can start, for example, with the railroads, which drove the canals largely out of business. And yet, the canal barons did not buy up railroad patents and try to suppress them, there were no schemes to keep canals alive. Or, when the automobile was invented, it definitely became a serious threat to the railways, and they were definitely wealthy enough to compete with "big pharma" as villains, and yet, the car was built, railways declined, and life went on.
The simple fact is, there is no way to suppress knowledge. Let us suppose you find "the cure for cancer" tomorrow. Now, "big pharma" may petition the government, perhaps have it disallowed for human use. (Part of why I believe we need to eliminate the FDA is because an FDA error can have such a chilling effect on research.) However, just because it cannot be used on humans does not prevent research or publication. You can continue animal studies, publish your results, maybe find another country willing to allow human tests to proceed. There is no way "big pharma" could stop this. Unless you truly believe every government, every publication, every source of research grants is corrupt, there is no way a truly effective cure would be fully suppressed.
The same is true of perpetual motion machines and miracle cars, but even more so. Medicine, at least, is so heavily regulated that one need only postulate corruption in government. To prevent the development of any of these miracle machines, you would have to postulate that every manufacturer, every venture capitalist, every banker, and every private investor is in the pocket of the plotters.
And that, in the end, is the stumbling block of every conspiracy theory, they require an absurdly jaded view of mankind. As I pointed out before, those "evil corporate stooges" are also your cousin, your brother, the guy down the street. Do you really think they are willing to dump toxins or allow school kids to be poisoned? Likewise, do we truly believe there is the near universal corruption required to accept most conspiracy theories of suppressed cures for various things? It strikes me as absurd. Perhaps I am overly optimistic about mankind, but experience has not shown me people are anywhere near as open to bribes and threats as this theory would suggest.
There is one other issue. Even if people could be bribed or threatened as this theory suggests, there is the second problem that they would also have to remains silent as well. history shows a number of cases where people were briefly bought or intimidated, but later had second thoughts. So, for these conspiracy theories to work, we have to postulate that people are corrupt enough to be easily bought, but so honorable they never then break silence. It seems a strangely contradictory view of people.