Julia Belluz: This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study

Below are extracts of an opinion piece by Julia Belluz, Senior health correspondent and evidence enthusiast
Read the full text online here: http://www.vox.com/2015/3/23/8264355/research-study-hype


“There’s a big, big, difference between how the media think about news and how scientists think about news,” Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor of the history of science, recently told me in an interview. “For you, what makes it news is that it’s new — and that creates a bias in the media to look for brand new results. My view would be that brand new results would be the most likely to be wrong.”

It’s a fact that all studies are biased and flawed in their own unique ways. The truth usually lies somewhere in a flurry of research on the same question. This means real insights don’t come by way of miraculous, one-off findings or divinely ordained eureka moments; they happen after a long, plodding process of vetting and repeating tests, and peer-to-peer discussion. The aim is to make sure findings are accurate and not the result of a quirk in one experiment or the biased crusade of a lone researcher…

We don’t wait for scientific consensus; we report a little too early, and we lead patients and policymakers down wasteful, harmful, or redundant paths that end in dashed hope and failed medicine…

More often than not, single studies contradict one another — such as the research on foods that cause or prevent cancer. The truth can be found somewhere in the totality of the research, but we report on every study in isolation underneath flip-flopping headlines. (Red wine will add years to your life one week, and kill you quicker the next.)…

I often wonder whether there is any value in reporting very early research. Journals now publish their findings, and the public seizes on them, but this wasn’t always the case: journals were meant for peer-to-peer discussion, not mass consumption.

For my part, I’ve tried to report new studies in context, and use systematic reviews — meta-analyses of all the best studies on clinical questions — wherever possible… I try to proceed cautiously, to remind myself that most of what I’m seeing today is hopelessly flawed, that there’s value in looking back.

Best wishes, Neil

Let’s build a future where people are no longer dying for lack of healthcare knowledge – Join HIFA: www.hifa.org

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