How Bad Medical Research is Destroying Our Health & Faith in Science
-by Robert Oliva
Our trust in science is waning. Do you believe what you hear from scientists? Like many Americans, you may be losing trust in what science is telling you.
A Huffington Post December 2013 poll found that only 36% of us have a “lot” of trust in the reliability of scientific information. 78% think that scientific studies are often or sometimes tainted by political ideology. And 82% believe scientific findings are often or sometimes influenced by the companies sponsoring the research. This is a disquieting trend.
This lack of confidence is especially strong regarding the nutritional and medical professions. One day it’s bad to eat eggs, the next day it’s good. A recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) underscores how confused we really are.
Seventy-eight percent of the 1,002 respondents indicated they have encountered conflicting information about what constitutes a healthy food. Fifty-six percent felt that the confusion made them doubt the choices they were making food wise. Liz Sanders, director of research and partnerships at the foundation and a co-author of the survey, said in a CNN report that:
“Americans rely on many different sources for their information when it comes to what foods to eat and what foods to avoid. Not all of these sources are really highly trusted, and it is likely that these sources share inconsistent information.”
How often have you found yourself or heard a family member dismissing a new nutritional study by saying “Forget it, these reports are too confusing and always changing. I’m going to eat and do what I like”? As it turns out, you and your family members share your confusion with a majority of Americans.
Why Are We Losing Trust In Science?
Setting aside the issue of religious fundamentalism, which can account for some of the mistrust of science, one possibility is the growing unreliability of many medical and nutritional practices and research. In the past few decades, there have been many medical and nutritional ideas that were later proven to be incorrect and even harmful.
Here’s a list of just a few confusing medical and nutritional practices prevalent in the past few decades that may have had a negative impact on your health:
- Stents – Stents cost about $30k a piece and are performed on over half a million Americans each year, but there is little data indicating they prevent stroke.
- High Carbohydrate Diets – Touted as the cure for heart disease for over 40 years, they have led to an obesity and diabetes epidemic with no clear support for their efficacy.
- Arthroscopic Knee Surgery – Up to 1 million surgeries have been performed each year but a systematic review in the British Medical Journal found that for patients with meniscus tears it was no better than exercise therapy.
- Vitamin E – Long thought to prevent cancer and heart disease. Numerous international studies found no benefit for protection against heart disease, stroke, or cancer.
- Proton Pumps – The treatment of GERD costs Americans a billion dollars a year. Long term use (greater than 14 days) can lead to serious side-effects, such as clostridium difficile infection, pneumonia, and malabsorption of calcium and magnesium leading to bone fractures and cardiac abnormalities.
As I’ve written elsewhere and as you can see from the above list, the health of millions of people is routinely compromised by flawed medical research and practices.
Medical journalist Richard Harris makes some damaging revelations in Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions:
1 – The State of Biomedical Research
…medical researchers made much more progress between 1950 and 1980 than they did in the following three decades. Consider the development of blood-pressure drugs, organ transplants, and other transformative technologies. Those all appeared in the decades before 1980.
2 – The Development of New Pharmaceutical Drugs
The rate of drug approval has been falling since the 1950s . . . if you extrapolate the trend, starting in 1950, you’ll find that drug development comes to a halt in 2040.
In 2005 Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, currently a professor in disease prevention at Stanford University, published the most widely accessed article in the history of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) entitled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. It stated:
“There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false.”
And that “in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims.”
Ioannidis’ research model indicated that up to 80% of non-randomized research studies (the most common kind of study) are wrong, along with 25% of randomized trials (the supposed gold standard of research). Incredulously, these studies are published in top peer reviewed medical journals.
Much of what our physicians prescribe to us is wrong. Our doctors use research to inform their medical decisions — decisions about what drug to prescribe, which surgery to elect, and the best health strategy to adopt. They are often making crucial treatment decisions for depression, Alzheimer’s, type 2 Diabetes, cancer, obesity, etc., based on bad, incomplete, or hidden medical research.
The Evolution of Bad Medical Science
Why is this happening? Why is so much of biomedical research so poorly done?
As it stands now, researchers are typically rewarded (tenure, grants, better jobs, etc.) for publishing a quantity of publications in prestigious journals. They do this by
- Running small and statistically weak studies (they are easy to do) that produce only positive results, since journals tend to not publish negative findings.
- Ignoring negative findings.
- Publishing only new and exciting findings that journals are looking for.
- Never checking old findings for accuracy and replicability.
- Changing methodologies in mid-stream to assure positive results.
The result is a proliferation of false and misleading findings that confuse scientists and the rest of us, waste billions of dollars, and undermine the scientific endeavour and our health.
To tackle why this is happening, two scientists, Smaldino and McElreath, created a computational model based on evolutionary theory (natural selection) to explain the rising tide of weak biomedical research. They did this by simulating virtual research labs competing under conditions that exist today. The labs that put more effort into their research received fewer publications. The labs that published more received more grants, students, and prestige.
Over numerous simulations and generations, the labs that were most successful (most publications, grants, etc.) passed their approach on to the next generation and proliferated. The labs that did not publish large amounts of research did not get the grants and prestige and proliferate as readily.
As occurs in natural selection, the most successful labs recreated themselves with greater frequency.
Ed Yong of the Atlantic Monthly summarized the results: “Over time, and across many simulations, the virtual labs inexorably slid towards less effort, poorer methods, and almost entirely unreliable results.”
With the emphasis on quantity of publication, the forces of natural selection will continue to select for poor research, false findings, muddled methodology, and accelerating confusion in the world of health and bio medical research. Replicability of findings will continue to falter as poor research studies abound.
The losers in all of this are those of us trying to make sense of what science is telling us so we can live better, more wholesome, and healthier lives.