In response to my post about the trouble with randomized controlled trials (RCTs), Bruce Charlton, the editor of Medical Hypotheses, wrote me:
The golden age of medical discovery came before the widespread usage of RCTs. This golden age was all but over by the end of the 1960s; since then the rate of progress has declined (see refs such as Horrobin, Le Fanu and Wurtman in http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/funding.html).
The earliest big and influential RCT in psychiatry was in the mid 1960s, and it was – in retrospect – misleading wrt MAOIs due to too low a dosage. Now that RCTs are regarded as indispensible, medical research is captive to Big Pharma
Another area of medicine [in addition to obstetrics] that has made big progress without being RCT-led is anesthetics. Dentistry is a third. These specialties are instead technology-led.
He also pointed me to an article by David Horrobin, the founder of Medical Hypotheses, titled “Are large clinical trials in rapidly lethal diseases usually unethical?” His answer was that some of their aspects are unethical: Prospective subjects (sick persons) are not told the low chance of benefit, the high chance of bad side effects, and the great financial benefit of such trials to the institutions that run them.
Horrobin’s article also made the point I made: The emphasis on RCTs suppresses innovation because only big well-established companies can afford them:
50 years ago, good scientific evidence of a potential therapeutic effect would quickly have generated a small clinical trial in one or two centers with perhaps 30 or 40 patients. Such a trial would have cost almost nothing. It would certainly have missed small or marginal effects, but it would not have missed the sort of large effect that most patients want. Unfortunately, now, such an approach has become impossible. . . . The escalation of costs has therefore drastically reduced the range of compounds from which new treatments can be drawn.
My reading of history is that suppression of innovation can last a long time but eventually change comes from the outside and the system collapses. Detroit, for example, has collapsed. General Motors was once as dominant as big drug companies are now.