IANS – Trusting Scientific Research

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No water bath required.

IANS –
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. ~ Mark Twain

When George Gershwin composed the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, he was onto something. I’d love to have a nickel for everything I was taught or told or just accepted as fact in the course of my life. From food preservation to gardening to animal husbandry to medicine to finance, there have been a lot more ‘not-so’ things than ‘so’ things. A while back I did a post on not needing to waterbath jams and jellies; I got more than 100 comments corroborating my “not-so” position. At which point it occurred to me there are lots of other not-so things out there, and shazaam, I had an ongoing blog topic. Here’s the latest “it ain’t necessarily so” (IANS).

The research process is based on honest, truly scientific experimentation.
Now, let’s talk about how research is funded. When it comes to human and animal health, the pharma giants are usually the folks providing all or part of the dough. In agriculture, it’s the ‘farma’ giants who have the moola. Money talks, and researchers will spin or downright falsify their findings to meet the expectations of their funders. If they don’t, the money pipeline will shut down. If you think I’m kidding, do some research of your own. Thirteen percent of scientists in the UK reported they had seen research falsified to get it published. Do a web search on Anil Potti (who falsified data on cancer research), Vioxx (which was withdrawn from the market after the researchers hid the findings that it killed people) or Dong-Pyou Han (who put human antibodies in rabbit blood samples to make it look as though an HIV vaccine would work). Or take a look at Study 329, published in 1994. This study of the drug Paxil, an antidepressant medication, initially reported Paxil was great stuff for depressed teenagers. Funded by big pharma company Smith Kline Beecham (which made Paxil), the study reported Paxil was effective and safe; over two million prescriptions were written for teenagers in ensuing years. But there were plenty of scientists who said there was a strong smell of fish about Study 329 and in 2015, some of them finally managed to get their hands on the original data. Surprise, surprise — not only did the data indicate Paxil was not effective, it indicated there was a high risk in giving it to teenagers because it made some of them suicidal. The study has never been retracted, no one has faced consequences and co-author Karen Wagner is — as of this writing — the president elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The AACAP journal published the original study.
Now, you want to be careful here, because the scientific establishment can be pretty cutthroat with people who publish ‘unpopular’ ideas (assuming they can even get them published) or who blow the whistle when somebody else falsifies data. The unpopular researcher and the whistleblower may get so much vituperation that the real issues are pushed into the background. Dr. Robert Atkins, a cardiologist, was vilified by the mainstream for his contention that people should restrict carbs to lose weight and could/should eat saturated fat. His recommendations were based on decades of experience with real live patients, not “scientific” double-blind studies. Since he tracked lab work like cholesterol and triglyceride levels, he could say with confidence that eating low-carb, high fat actually improved these measures. After his death, some brave souls started to replicate his work and confirmed much of what Atkins had been saying. When a study is attacked (especially in the popular press) it may well be that the establishment doesn’t want someone pointing out their lack of attire. Emperors get testy when Johnny points out that the royal derriere is uncovered.
John P. Ionnadis is a Professor of Medicine and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University School of Medicine and a Professor of Statistics at Stanford University School of Humanities and Science. About 10 years ago, he wrote a paper titled, ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.’ Here’s what he says in the abstract (pay particular attention to the bolded sentences and especially to the last sentence):
“There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on:

  • Study power and bias
  • The number of other studies on the same question
  • And, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field.
  • In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true:

  • When the studies conducted in a field are smaller
  • When effect sizes are smaller
  • When there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships
  • Where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes
  • When there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice
  • And when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance.
  • Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

    Take a Missouri Approach
    Missouri is the “show me” state. The mental attitude of “you’ll have to prove it to me” is a good one. Use your common sense. When your experience or that of people you trust is contrary to accepted scientific wisdom or expert recommendations, odds are very high the scientific wisdom and the experts are out to lunch. Ask the old homicide lawyer’s question, “Cui bono?” Loosely translated as “Who benefits?” what it actually means is “To whose profit?” When big bucks, company survival or professional reputations are on the line, ethics quite often take a back seat. Circus entrepreneur PT Barnum was the one who coined the sucker-born-every-minute rule. Don’t be a sucker and remember: it ain’t necessarily so.

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