Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Self-Correcting Science: A Slow & Haphazard Process

SPOTLIGHT: Physicians and medical researchers are often armed with outdated facts.

BIG PICTURE: In 1993, a pair of papers published in a prestigious medical journal suggested that Vitamin E helped prevent heart attacks in both men and women. These papers were based on observational studies, which suffer from serious shortcomings.

A follow-up study published in the same journal seven years later found no evidence that patients who’d been taking Vitamin E for years experienced fewer heart problems. Because these findings were the result of a randomized controlled trial, a superior form of research, they should have put the matter to rest.

But erroneous ideas linger. As Richard Harris explains in Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, half of research published in 2005 that mentioned the 1993 papers still viewed their results as accurate. Five years after the world knew better, doctors reading newly-published journal articles were still likely to be misled about this relatively straightforward matter.

Mistaken ideas persist. Science may be self-correcting over the long haul, but that process is slow and haphazard. In the interim, lots of people continue to make real-world decisions based on outdated information.

Harris quotes John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine who says scientists who’ve spent their career studying Vitamin E aren’t necessarily keen to change their mind. They’re too heavily invested in a particular perspective:

They were living in their own bubble, unperturbed by the evidence. This is one major reason why having lots of false results circulating in the literature is not a good idea. These results get entrenched. You cannot get rid of them. There will be lots of people who…will never know that this thing has been refuted.

TOP TAKEAWAY: We celebrate the ability of science to self-correct. But major caveats apply.


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions
Richard Harris

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This entry was posted on April 20, 2018 by in quotations, Uncategorized and tagged , .
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