Thursday, July 26, 2007

Scientific Misconduct Word-of-the-Week: Neutralize

Word of the weekI introduce two new weekly features on this blog.
  • Word of the week (or concept of the week):
    The interesting language of integrity and accountability in science
  • Retro roundup:
    What happened this past week in the history of academic integrity, and what we haven't learned.
The language of debate about pharmaceutical and scientific integrity is very different from colloquial English. Instead of a few thousand commonly used words, we have a restricted lexicon of a few hundred words, many of which bear a superficial resemblance to common English. For example words or concepts such as "transparency", "independent", "public interest", "criminal investigation", "research misconduct" and "the free market" have quite different meanings from those normally encountered.

Today's word of the week is "NEUTRALIZE"

In the dictionary we read

  1. To make neutral.
  2. To counterbalance or counteract the effect of; render ineffective.
  3. To declare neutral and therefore inviolable during a war.
  4. Chemistry : To cause (an acid or base) to undergo neutralization.
  5. Medicine: To counteract the effect of (a drug or toxin).
  6. Slang: To remove as a threat, especially by killing.
However, a brief reading of text in this area shows that this is in error.

Neutralize in fact means "to educate".

To trace the changes of form of these words is no easy task. I believe the word "neutralize" in it's current sense was first applied in 1962, but it's meaning was consolidated by Merck & Co. pharmaceuticals in 2005. Merck's marketing team targeted doctors viewed as unfriendly toward Vioxx to bring them into the fold (or to neutralize them).

In one written example Nancy Santanello, head of Merck's epidemiology department was questioned about an internal list of 36 doctors identified as:

"physicians to neutralize"

"Attached is the complete list of 36 physicians to neutralize with background information and recommended tactics. You will notice that some have already been neutralized".

In court, Santanello said the term "neutralize" was a marketing strategy to educate doctors about Vioxx
(first Vioxx trial 07/19/2005, Associated Press)

In other instances it could involve payment of money or threats of legal action - both good scientific methodologies.

The correspondence given to jurors was to or from Susan L. Baumgartner, who worked for Merck as a consultant. In videotaped testimony, she repeatedly said neither she nor anyone she knew at Merck intimidated anyone, and that the terms had nothing to do with intimidation, and were marketing jargon rather than dictionary terms

That, said Baumgartner, meant to provide correct information so those doctors would "come to a neutral or fair position". In a memo with "discredit" under a name, she said her recollection was that the doctor "discredited himself based on his own actions."

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Anonymous said...

What an excellent addition to your already splendid blog. I look forward to more. I would suggest that the GMC already make use of the second (#2) dictionary definition of neutralize and sometimes wonder in quiet moments of unmedicated paranoia, whether they also employ the slang version (#6) in addition.

Aubrey Blumsohn said...

Thank you Sisyphus

Hey you need to get your blog back. I read it!