Pages

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A lot of what is published is incorrect

source

Via the k2p blog. The Lancet recently published a piece about a symposium on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research, held at the Wellcome Trust which begins :-

“A lot of what is published is incorrect.” I'm not allowed to say who made this remark because we were asked to observe Chatham House rules. We were also asked not to take photographs of slides. Those who worked for government agencies pleaded that their comments especially remain unquoted, since the forthcoming UK election meant they were living in “purdah”—a chilling state where severe restrictions on freedom of speech are placed on anyone on the government's payroll. Why the paranoid concern for secrecy and non-attribution? Because this symposium—on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research, held at the Wellcome Trust in London last week—touched on one of the most sensitive issues in science today: the idea that something has gone fundamentally wrong with one of our greatest human creations.

Every now and then we hear these whispers about the untrustworthy nature of science and scientists, how too much scientific research is junk aimed at more funding and fashions rather than the advancement of human knowledge. Understandably the problem seems to be causing significant anxiety in medical fields, hence the symposium and the Chatham House rules.

Yet it is extremely difficult for anyone to put some kind of scale on the problem. There is a problem I'm sure, but how significant is it? To my mind it's another of those areas where we should do our own research and reach our own conclusions. Here's another quote:-

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.

All the scientists I ever knew were decent people who would not compromise sound science. Times change though. During my working life bureaucracy, political fashions and the power of money became ever more important. 

Good scientists retired and numerous external pressures began to dominate the agenda. The integrity of the individual scientist gradually became unimportant, ineffective against a swelling tide of political, bureaucratic and financial exigencies. Finally :-

The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously. The bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system.

8 comments:

duffandnonsense said...

'Now look here, Hart,' he snapped in his best Capt. Mainwaring voice, 'I did all that yonks ago!'

"According to a story at Yahoo News, a former Head of Research at Amgen, a huge international biotechnology company with headquarters in California, has announced that during his ten years in this position he checked out 53 "landmarked" papers from reputable labs published in top medical science journals under their supposedly strict rules which govern checking and peer-reviewing of new scientific papers. The man concerned, Glenn Begley, said that of those 53 papers making claims that such and such a procedure had efficacious results in the treatment of cancer, 47 of them were impossible to replicate in laboratory tests! Another giant bio company, Bayer, had similarly pathetic results according to the Yahoo report"

http://duffandnonsense.typepad.com/duff_nonsense/2012/04/its-not-just-bankers-who-are-corruptible-crooks.html

You're nowhere if you don't keep up with D&N!

Mac said...

“To my mind it's another of those areas where we should do our own research and reach our own conclusions.”
Off topic, but not too far off, is this post linked below.
Basically, for the many, if something finds its way onto Facebook, or similar ‘instant’ media, it’s taken as gospel by the vast majority with no need for further personal research. And it seems bad is always more exciting that good.

http://headrambles.com/2015/05/01/the-cesspool-effect/

Roger said...

Plenty of phenomena were non-reproducible until they were better understood and if you are looking for a tiny effect in a dodgy subject like medicine you are bound to get trouble. Add the influence of university Regents, the marketing departments and the boondoggles that are the FDA and the RCUK and it is a miracle anything useful happens at all. Thankfully mother nature never lies whatever you may think of Nature.

Praise be - the psychologists seem to be abandoning the 'null hypothesis' and looking askance at 5% effects. If you can measure nuttiness (or sanity) to 5% you are a very lucky researcher indeed. Slowly we go forward.

A K Haart said...

David - surely you can't recall what you wrote three years ago? I bet the Lancet tipped you off.

Mac - I think you are right. First reaction is often the only reaction especially where junk science is concerned.

Roger - you may be right and much of what we see may be transient errors in the laborious trial and error we call progress.

Although mother nature never lies, people do and mother nature can be subtle enough for the lies to hold centre stage for a long time.

So scientific progress could be far more inefficient than we imagine and the enormous amount of junk science may be normal.

Or we may be hitting the knowledge buffers and outstanding problems are too subtle to clear away the junk.

Roger said...

Plenty of mathematical problems lay unsolved for more than a century which suggests the human brain is not all that much good at subtle (or non-urgent) problems. The definition of a lie is interesting - telling an untruth you knew to be untrue - practically unprovable and cooked up by the early theological lawyers. If you told a lie you went to Hell, so subtlety is needed. Need I say more.

Demetrius said...

One scary thing from the past was how long it took for new treatment for ulcers to take the place of serious surgery etc. This was a major area of medical provision whose members rejected and refused to accept the new knowledge. How many died or suffered because of this is not known but it must have been very many.

Flyinthesky said...

One of the problems with science is the eminence hierarchy , criticism of someone higher up the chain, irrespective of being right, can have serious career implications. This leads us to a state of consensus and consensus is stagnation.
There have been very few advances in any areas that haven't been made by mavericks, often at great risk to themselves.

Demetrius, The poor man, Barry Marshal, had to give himself the bacteria, at some risk, to prove his point.

How many other areas are there where we are actively discouraged from looking.

Here's a quote from Peter Gozsches' Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime:

A former vice-president of Pfizer, who has said: It is scary how many similarities there are between this industry and the mob. The mob makes obscene amounts of money, as does this industry. The side effects of organized crime are killings and deaths, and the side effects are the same in this industry. The mob bribes politicians and others, and so does the drug industry.a former vice-president of Pfizer, who has said: It is scary how many similarities there are between this industry and the mob. The mob makes obscene amounts of money, as does this industry. The side effects of organized crime are killings and deaths, and the side effects are the same in this industry. The mob bribes politicians and others, and so does the drug industry.

A K Haart said...

Roger - the definition of a lie is very interesting and I ought to do a post on it. Not because I know what lies are, but because they are common and complex.

Demetrius - yes, the ulcer issue keeps crossing my mind too. Maybe science is much slower to correct itself than we expect and often assume.

Fly - there are many similarities between activities we prefer to keep apart. Science and the priesthood for example.