Interesting Article on Medical Research

I found this link to an interesting article on the flaws and biases present in scientific research, particularly medical research. Unlike a lot of scientists, I do not look to the peer-review process as a guarantee of infallibility on the part of the author – people are flawed and the scientific community has a really bad track record of policing itself when it comes to research.  When you couple that with financial and career incentives, I’m not surprised at all that a sizable percentage of scientific research is warped and biased.  It’s an interesting read and, if you have the time, you should check out the two journal articles that it refers.  Here’s an excerpt from the article:

But beyond the headlines, Ioannidis was shocked at the range and reach of the reversals he was seeing in everyday medical research. “Randomized controlled trials,” which compare how one group responds to a treatment against how an identical group fares without the treatment, had long been considered nearly unshakable evidence, but they, too, ended up being wrong some of the time. “I realized even our gold-standard research had a lot of problems,” he says. Baffled, he started looking for the specific ways in which studies were going wrong. And before long he discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals.

This is also somewhat interesting:

Perhaps only a minority of researchers were succumbing to this bias, but their distorted findings were having an outsize effect on published research. To get funding and tenured positions, and often merely to stay afloat, researchers have to get their work published in well-regarded journals, where rejection rates can climb above 90 percent. Not surprisingly, the studies that tend to make the grade are those with eye-catching findings. But while coming up with eye-catching theories is relatively easy, getting reality to bear them out is another matter. The great majority collapse under the weight of contradictory data when studied rigorously. Imagine, though, that five different research teams test an interesting theory that’s making the rounds, and four of the groups correctly prove the idea false, while the one less cautious group incorrectly “proves” it true through some combination of error, fluke, and clever selection of data. Guess whose findings your doctor ends up reading about in the journal, and you end up hearing about on the evening news?


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7 Responses

  1. And unfortunately, this is also what the politicians tend to hear, since they usually only read reviews of scientific articles in the media.

  2. Actually, I suspect that politicians don’t actually hear about research in any particular field. They probably employ people as advisers to brief them on whats happening in various fields. The problem with that is that everything heard passes through that filter, which is why you don’t really see politicians change their mind based upon research or developments in that field. They hire people that already hold a particular view of a subject and then that view is simply reinforced by their advisers.

  3. True – I guess if they get to spend the day bickering in Parliament they really don’t have to time to read up on research into the subject they’re arguing about. :/ Oh well, at least they’re doing a semi-decent job with what information they do have.

    • Actually, in the states right now, it’s election season, so the past few months have been nothing but TV ads and endless pontificating about how government run is a good thing.

      Sounds like the current UK approach is rather severe…sounds like David Cameron is pretty serious about cutting the size of government on your side of the pond.

      • Elections already? I though there was another couple of years until the next change in American government.

        And I don’t know about the Brit approach – I was talking about the Canadian Parliament, just across the border 🙂

      • Ah…my mistake. The US holds elections every two years, but only certain offices are up for election. Since the passage of the 17th amendment, US senators are elected by popular vote for six year terms, so every two years, we vote on senators (for the record, I think the 17th amendment was one of the most foolish changes we’ve ever made to our constitution). State representatives are elected to four year terms and the president is, of course, elected to a four-year term as well.

        The upshot is that we have elections every two years and every other election year, we vote on the presidency. This is why politicians seem to spend about half their time on the campaign trail and the other half trying to pass legislation to use as ammunition during campaign season.

  4. Seems like a colossal waste of time and money.

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