Monday, January 24, 2011

Studies Gone Wild: How We Come to Wrong Scientific Conclusions

If you've ever wondered why the experts can't get it right, head over to a good read at Newsweek - Why Almost Everything You Hear about Medicine Is Wrong.  Basically a quick reminder of how studies get misinterpreted, the results flawed and/or exaggerated, the problem of the preponderance of positive or freak findings to the exclusion of negative ones.  The rising star of the flawed medical science, Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis is a former child math prodigy who hunts down bad results, a medicine "mythbuster":
As the new chief of Stanford University’s Prevention Research Center, Ioannidis is cementing his role as one of medicine’s top mythbusters. “People are being hurt and even dying” because of false medical claims, he says: not quackery, but errors in medical research.
How wrong?  Most says the grown-up digits guru. 

I've heard him say as much as two-thirds in other articles.  Now that might be an overstatement according to some, but still he has a ledge to stand on.  He often points to the problem of negative results, rather, the fact that they don't get aired in public as in published.  Get sweeped right under the proverbial lab rug. 

What we know for sure, at least according to Newsweek (until they try to tell us differently next week):
Smoking kills, being morbidly obese or severely underweight makes you more likely to die before your time, processed meat raises the risk of some cancers, and controlling blood pressure reduces the risk of stroke. The upshot for consumers: medical wisdom that has stood the test of time—and large, randomized, controlled trials—is more likely to be right than the latest news flash about a single food or drug.
I would add a few more from the wacky world of child research:

Childhood obesity is rising
Sleeping reduces the incidence of SIDS (though it is not the "cause")
Breastfeeding has some slight benefits for mom and child
Vaccines do not cause autism

What else? 

I wonder if Doctor Data is friends with Gary Taubes, the science writer who basically says we know next to nothing about anything, especially health and nutrition. 

Wouldn't this be a fascinating reality show? Medical Mythbusters.  Of course it's really going to need a hip host.  Any ideas?  There's got to be a disgruntled post-doc out there somewhere yearning for a media career?  By the way, if this show already exists, please let me know because I need to add it to my Tivo lineup.

6 comments:

Corinne said...

Gary Taubes thinks "we" know next to nothing and yet he somehow has found all of the answers :)

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

You've been taking your Vitamin B, haven't you, Corinne! Gold star!!

JRM said...

i think there is a medical myth busters show. The problem is that regardless of how many times one tries to explain that what the media reported wasn't accurate or how one should interpret scientific data, it doesn't seem to matter because if Oprah or Dr. Oz (amongst other celebrities and celebrity doctors) said it, then it must be true. There is definitely some "quackery" out there when health "practitioners" make outrageous claims that their course of treatment is the actual "right" treatment. And if they are the ones publishing the erroneous data or spreading the word through whatever medium will take them, I think that qualifies as "quackery" at best and horribly unethical lies at worst. Someone we still seem to accept those people and their lies (wakefield?). Anyhow, I'd love to do a medical myth busters show - but I'd be somewhat afraid for my personal safety given the vehemence of so many people on comment boards on various science-based websites and virtually any accurate health article.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey JRM! You're preaching to the choir. Yes, the medical myth-busters seems like it's been done, maybe Discovery Health? I'd love to see it, especially one directed at children's health - maybe you could adopt a screen name?

TherExtras said...

Don't forget Orac. John Stassel doesn't count, I know. However, he might be a willing host to Ioannidis.

I left this on another blog: 'science journalist' has no meaning in my lexicon'. Really, scientists, researchers or those who can read research have to learn how to give the information. Just saw a tweet from Bioltrix on a post to that effect.

You do your part, Polly, and I thank you for that! Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Amen, what does "science journalist" mean anyhow? I know there's a degree but really...John Stossel probably considers himself one.