Is the clamour for publicity making a mockery of real scientific progress?
The recent misleading Omega 3/fish oil controversy and Angelina Jolie (preventative breast removal) dramas are just two examples of the increasing trend for ‘sensationalised ‘science’ – The tendency of many studies to transform a statistical correlation into ‘factual’ causation.
In the process we get a trail of false hopes, unfounded health scares and plain flawed science.
Do you sometimes wonder why this is this happening? Especially when behind all the hype, solid evidence is often available presenting the facts logically.
Is it because such evidence is too ‘boring’, scientific and inaccessible for the ordinary man or woman in the street?
Or, is it because of the increasing pressure on product/supplement creators to magic up that elusive Blockbuster? The one that will supposedly put them on the map and end all money woes for good?
Perhaps it’s because ‘pseudo scientists’ just don’t get it?
Dr Alan Kristal, lead author of the Omega 3-cancer study clearly doesn’t get it when he states: “We’ve shown once again that the use of nutritional supplements may be harmful”.
It’s ironic that in response to the question ‘what next?’ Kristal states: “I am retiring.”
Maybe that’s an honourable way out of a ‘profession’ which is becoming increasingly hit by fraud and spin.
Junk Science Facts
For example: in a study published by JAMA, researchers reported that over 40% of the best designed, peer-reviewed scientific papers published in the world's top medical journals misrepresented the research findings.
To confirm this and to identify the nature and frequency of distorted presentation or spin, Boutron et al. systematically evaluated 616 published reports of Random Control Trials (RCTs). After appraising the 72 eligible studies, they concluded that, "In the representative sample of RCT's published in 2006 with statistically non significant primary outcomes, the reporting and interpretation of findings was frequently inconsistent with the results."
In other words, it appears that much of the published research has been intentionallymanipulated.
A good example of the ‘spin’ Boutron et al discovered relates to the 2004 re-classification of cholesterol levels.
In 2004 the US National Institutes of Health dramatically lowered the ideal LDL level for cardiovascular disease prevention strategies. This instantly increased the number of Americans for whom statins are recommended from 13 million to 36 million.
After a systematic review of the literature to confirm whether or not statins are even effective in managing heart disease, the respected medical journal, The Lancet, said ‘No”.
It published a paper concluding that, "In support of statin therapy for the primary prevention of this disease in women and people aged over 65 years, the guidelines cite seven and nine randomized trials, respectively. Yet not one of the studies provides such evidence."
So, of the 23 million new people now with "high LDL levels;" there is no valid, scientifically proven reason to assume that they are at increased risk.
Because of a spin on the data; however, they are labelled as being at elevated risk of developing coronary heart disease and are now being pressured to take statins.
The ‘Science’ of Spinning
More research by Dr. Fang, professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Dr Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York led to the conclusion that this spin, and the increasing number of retractions (withdrawal /cancellation of the original statement). are representative of a much more profound problem.
This problem is defined by Dr Fang as “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate.”
Dr. Casadevall described the climate by saying: “there's a disproportionate reward system, so if researchers are published in key journals of prominence they're more likely to get key jobs and win funding, making temptations to deceive stronger…..
….Science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct”.
New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan agrees with: “More fame, more potential for profit.. Some of the cheating and fraud is not too dissimilar to the cheating and fraud we've seen in banking."
Sadly Casadevall concludes: “Even if society in general has become more deceptive, I used to think that science was on a different plane."
I still do.
Yes, I’m appalled by the ‘junk science’ we’re seeing. But I also believe that many "scientists” out there are well meaning and honest people, susceptible to similar pressures we all face.
Of course, that does not excuse them. It does mean we have to be doubly cautious about who and what we believe.
This is especially given our confusing, information overload society.
Please tell us what we can do to help you see through the spin, and make informed decisions about your health and wellbeing.