Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Almost Everything You Hear About Medicine Is Wrong

It seems Sharon Begley can be rational when she wants to be.

If she could apply a similar degree of healthy and appropriate scepticism to her climate change reporting, I'd be very pleased.

It appears a lot of medical research suffers from the same problem that a lot of climate research suffers from, ie "stasticulation" - the use of inappropriate statistical methods to arrive at, at best, erroneous conclusions or, at worst, contrived ones.

In climate science, the now infamous Hockey Stick is possibly the most egregious example.

And where would we be without epidemiology? For one thing, we'd have far fewer bullshit "health" stories in the papers and on the nightly news:

Statistical flukes also plague epidemiology, in which researchers look for links between health and the environment, including how people behave and what they eat. A study might ask whether coffee raises the risk of joint pain, or headaches, or gallbladder disease, or hundreds of other ills. "When you do thousands of tests, statistics says you’ll have some false winners," says Ioannidis. Drug companies make a mint on such dicey statistics. By testing an approved drug for other uses, they get hits by chance, "and doctors use that as the basis to prescribe the drug for this new use. I think that’s wrong."

Which is of course what certain people have been banging on about for years.

Even the case against second-hand cigarette smoke, (but not smoking itself), is based upon some pretty dodgy epidemiological studies with quite weak findings.

But this isn't about anti-science. It isn't an endorsement of rubbish like so-called complimentary or alternative therapies which either basically don't work or end up making you sicker.

And don't get me started on the anti-oxidant religion.

It is however about the proper application of the scientific method, but with an understanding that our knowledge is always contingent and partial.

Our minds should always be open to the possibility that, despite our best efforts, we can still be wrong and that we still have things to learn.

Yet another reason to be sceptical about the "science is settled" crowd, wherever we find them.

Keep in mind though, these reassessments aren't coming from fringe alternative medicine crackpots, but from men and women schooled in the scientific method and applying its most powerful insights.

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