Yesterday I saw an article claiming that Canadian researchers had found a cure for cancer (I will post this link to an article in the New Scientist that actually explains what really happened), and the article implied (without outright stating) that this information was being either ignored or suppressed. In short order, I saw two responses by researchers (one of whom I know personally, the other of whom is a friend of one of my closest friends) who pointed out that the author of the article completely and utterly misunderstood the research, and comitted such rookie errors as claiming that normal metabolic processes are freakish and unhealthy. The actual research found that a particular generic drug did show positive effects when used against a particular form of brain cancer. Cancers are all different, and even this drug did not cure this particular form of cancer (let alone all cancers) so much as show effectiveness at either stopping progression or reducing the tumors. Also, the study was small, and therefore not statistically significant, but it wasn't intended to be, it was intended to test whether or not the underlying concept was valid, which it appears to be, in order to pave the way for a larger, more robust study (this is how good science works, small studies don't give the final word on anything, but do point to avenues for further investigation). This is very cool, but not the miracle that it is being promoted as by the author of the article, or by many people who have been duped by the article.
In other words, it was unfortunately typical crap science reporting, but because it was on a topic that scares the hell out of so many people (that is, cancer), and it had a popular subtext ("those big pharma bastards are suppressing research...apparently by not stopping it from being published in a widely-read journal or funded by the Canadian government")it has been getting passed around like herpes at an orgy.
Naturally, in the comments, and on social networking sites where the article is being passed around, the running theme has been that "Big Pharma*" is using it's octopus-like reach to suppress all information that might threaten it's ability to make money.
Here's the thing: the pharmaceutical industry has done some pretty crappy and abhorrent things throughout history, and recently it has suppressed inconvenient information that comes from pharmaceutical company researchers (look at the failure to publish some of the more dubious results for Prozac, for example). But it is not, I repeat NOT some sort of quasi-national superpower with the ability to stifle results from all scientists everywhere, or even many scientists in alot of places. To look at the response that people are having to this article, or the sorts of responses that people (especially people in the alt-med community) have to stories about pharmaceutical companies in general, it becomes clear that the pharmaceutical companies (always referred to by the scarier name of "Big Pharma") are viewed as a massive boogeyman with the ability to reach out and shut down any and all research and any and all avenues for publication that goes against it's wishes, no matter where it's published. Folks, the Chinese government has discovered that it doesn't even have that ability, and the Chinese government has far more power than the pharmaceutical industry or their lobbyists do anywhere (owning a big chunk of the U.S. National Debt, and having many Washington lobbysts...just sayin'). It's the funny thing about information, it tends to leak out and get expressed even when a dictatorial power is trying to suppress it. It's also the funny thing about scientists, they tend to talk and publish even when powerful interests would prefer that they wouldn't. A particular researcher working for Pfizer, or receiving Pfizer funding, might sit on results, but that's not going to stop someone who isn't associated with Pfizer who is pursuing similar research - and there are plenty of researchers who aren't in a company's pocket.
In order to exercise the amount of power that is often attributed to the pharmaceutical companies, they would have to be able to dictate the research program of almost every researcher on the planet and have veto power over what is published in nearly every journal and be able to dictate where every research funding agency directs their funds. This is absurd. If you honestly believe that anyone, pharmaceutical companies, any one government, the United Nations, or the Reptoid Aliens, has that degree of power and influence, you are suffering from a paranoid delusion. And it is telling that many (probably less than half, but likely not much less than half) of the outlets for the "Big Pharma is trying to suppress information" meme often also make claims about how they are waiting for some action from the pharmaceutical industry that will shut them down...and action that will likely never come.
Don't get me wrong, the fact that these companies have prevented publication of information is bad. I am not exonerating them, I have a good deal of contempt for these sorts of activities**. However, no government on the planet, no matter how brutal, has the amount of power that is often attributed to these companies. It is absurd to think that these companies do. Any powerful organization needs to be watched and criticized, but make sure that you are criticizing it for something real rather than simply falling for paranoid fantasies.
*Not to be confused with the Big Farmer.
**Suppression of research results isn't even their big issue. It's actually the fact that they have often dedicated money to "lifestyle drugs", deciding to cure "restless leg syndrome" amongst wealthy people in Europe and the U.S. rather than find more effective medications for, say, malaria in third-world countries. But this is a natural result of them being for-profit companies - the nature of the beast dictates that they may chase the profitable route rather than the responsible one. And in case you start feeling to proud of your alt-med style, keep in mind that many an herb, vitamin, and other alt-med company sells and falsely markets primarily placebos because they make money, while doing the research to only sell things that actually are effective would be more expensive for them. In other words, both the pharmaceutical companies and your local naturopath are chasing the easier money at the expense of people's health.