As a reader reminded me yesterday in a comment to my post on ghostwriting, ghostwriters were widely used by the drug company Wyeth to promote hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. While the resulting fraud succeeded in creating a market into which Wyeth and other companies were able to market their drugs, the long-term consequences were not benign:
But the seeming consensus fell apart in 2002 when a huge federal study on hormone therapy was stopped after researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer, heart disease and stroke. A later study found that hormones increased the risk of dementia in older patients.
The drug companies wanted a scientific image for their products, so they created one by paying ghostwriters to create the appearance of broad-based research support for their drugs. As a result, they ended up killing human beings who would not otherwise have died.
Because ghostwritten celebrity bios don’t usually lead to death, and because the effect of such authorial fraud is difficult to detect, there’s a tendency to believe that the hiring of a ghostwriter is benign and that an example like the Wyeth case is an outlier. But lying about authorship in order to create a brand image for a drug and lying about authorship to create an image for a performer or politician involves exactly the same intent and execution. While there is clearly a range of possible negative outcomes in these examples, the frauds themselves are identical.
Looking at the outcome of a particular fraud also fails to reveal another kind of damage done by ghostwriting. Less apparent, but more widespread, is the erosion of confidence that ghostwriting creates:
“It’s almost like steroids and baseball,” said Dr. Joseph S. Ross, an assistant professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who has conducted research on ghostwriting. “You don’t know who was using and who wasn’t; you don’t know which articles are tainted and which aren’t.”
And that really goes to the heart of the post I put up yesterday. I understand that everybody does it. I understand that politicians on both sides of the aisle are liars. I get it. Believe me.
If celebrity ghostwriting doesn’t cause physical cancer it’s still a social cancer which erodes our confidence in the things we read and the things that experts and culturally-prominent people tell us. My specific concern on this blog is that it erodes confidence in the idea of authorship, which means it erodes your confidence in me.
— Mark Barrett
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