The case for modesty
The current issue of the Atlantic has a fantastic profile of Greek physician John Ioannidis, author of the most downloaded paper in the history of PLoS Medicine. (h/t The Bubble Chamber). Ionnadis apparently has determined that many of the most heralded findings of modern medicine are based on sloppy, careless research:
[Ionnadis’s] model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials.
The article delves deeper into some of the reasons for the outcome, with the drive for publication as one of the chief culprits. I recommend reading the entire piece.
Longtime readers will not be surprised to hear that I found this passage particularly appealing (emphasis added):
In fact, the question of whether the problems with medical research should be broadcast to the public is a sticky one in the meta-research community. Already feeling that they’re fighting to keep patients from turning to alternative medical treatments such as homeopathy, or misdiagnosing themselves on the Internet, or simply neglecting medical treatment altogether, many researchers and physicians aren’t eager to provide even more reason to be skeptical of what doctors do—not to mention how public disenchantment with medicine could affect research funding. Ioannidis dismisses these concerns. “If we don’t tell the public about these problems, then we’re no better than nonscientists who falsely claim they can heal,” he says. “If the drugs don’t work and we’re not sure how to treat something, why should we claim differently? Some fear that there may be less funding because we stop claiming we can prove we have miraculous treatments. But if we can’t really provide those miracles, how long will we be able to fool the public anyway? The scientific enterprise is probably the most fantastic achievement in human history, but that doesn’t mean we have a right to overstate what we’re accomplishing.”
We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.
“Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor,” he says. “I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.
Modest and restrained arguments more accurately represent the promise of science while avoiding the intellectual costs of bluster and exaggeration.