Day By Day

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Continuing Collapse of Scientific Authority

This is really stunning!

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association publishes a report that reviews major medical studies,

published in three influential medical journals between 1990 and 2003, including 45 highly publicized studies that initially claimed a drug or other treatment worked.

Contradicted: Subsequent research contradicted results of seven studies -- 16 percent -- and reported weaker results for seven others, an additional 16 percent. That means nearly one-third of the original results did not hold up, according to the study in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. [emphasis mine]

Let’s go through that again. One third of the major studies published in highly rated, peer-reviewed medical journals presented false or exaggerated claims – claims that were widely trumpeted in the press.

The refuted studies dealt with a wide range of drugs and treatments. Hormone pills were once thought to protect menopausal women from heart disease but later were shown to do the opposite. Contrary to initial results, Vitamin E pills have not been shown to prevent heart attacks.

Contradictions also included a study that found nitric oxide does not improve survival in patients with respiratory failure, despite earlier claims. And a study suggested an antibody treatment did not improve survival in certain sepsis patients; a smaller previous study found the opposite.

Read it here.

There are so many issues here I hardly know where to begin. Science is a human enterprise subject to human failings, but it is seldom represented as such. Instead “Science” claims authority to organize our lives, our societies, and our governments superior to any other. To be accepted such authority must deliver on its promises, and do so reliably. Obviously, the mechanisms that are supposed to provide that reliability are not working very well.

Ah, you say, but "Science" is also a body of knowledge undergoing constant revision. OK, then why should we base public policy, or organize our lives, on the shifting sands of knowledge that is subject to revision; especially when there are countering political, moral, or institutional claims.Why privilege "science?"

And, for that matter, how much of "science's" exalted reputation rests on the demonstrated effects of "technology" which is quite a different kind of beast from "science"?

And, have you noted how many of the great evils of the past century -- from eugenics, to National Socialism, to international Communism, and on and on, claimed to be based in superior "scientific" principles? Interesting, eh!


The WSJ chimes in:

It has been a long time since the words "scientific study" automatically inspired respect. We've been fooled too often since they told us saccharin causes cancer and closed the dioxin-rich Love Canal, only to bring both back later. Apples and Oreos have been on a hit list; butter was bad, but then it was better than margarine. Even the government's own Food Pyramid, the one that once glorified pasta, has now been adjusted to reflect thinking closer to what many mothers in the 1950s already knew about a healthy, balanced diet.

There are many reasons why health scares and medical treatments come and go. Now we have a scientific study of scientific studies that sheds some light on the subject. An article in the July 13 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examines how often research that gets a lot of attention--in the scientific community and in the wider world--is then challenged by later studies that reach opposite or less dramatic conclusions.

Read the whole thing here.

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