Kristen Sparrow • June 27, 2011
In researching the Alternative Medicine Debate from yesterday, I came upon this article from the Atlantic from last November.
It is entitled,”Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science.” And I’m sorry for the length of this post, but even at this length, there was more in the article I wanted to share. It concerns a Harvard trained, math whiz, named John Ioannidis. He has a lab in Greece and has devoted himself to carefully studying medical research and its claims and the ground breaking results have been met with some denials and blow back, but also with acceptance. He is one of the most sought after researchers in the world. The whole article is fascinating, and it would be great for readers interested in these controversies to read the whole thing. But I will excerpt some of the most parts I find the most interesting. First, do no harm… After reading this article, I certainly will reconsider some of the supplement recommendations I make in my clinic. They amount to certain vitamins, but still, if not necessary, best to skip them.
… Ioannidis, who had mostly been listening, delivered what felt like a coup de grâce: wasn’t it possible, he asked, that drug companies were carefully selecting the topics of their studies—for example, comparing their new drugs against those already known to be inferior to others on the market—so that they were ahead of the game even before the data juggling began? “Maybe sometimes it’s the questions that are biased, not the answers,” he said, flashing a friendly smile. Everyone nodded. Though the results of drug studies often make newspaper headlines, you have to wonder whether they prove anything at all. Indeed, given the breadth of the potential problems raised at the meeting, can any medical-research studies be trusted?
That question has been central to Ioannidis’s career. He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.
…And sure enough, he goes on to suggest that an obsession with winning funding has gone a long way toward weakening the reliability of medical research.
… In poring over medical journals, he was struck by how many findings of all types were refuted by later findings. Of course, medical-science “never minds” are hardly secret. And they sometimes make headlines, as when in recent years large studies or growing consensuses of researchers concluded that mammograms, colonoscopies, and PSA tests are far less useful cancer-detection tools than we had been told; or when widely prescribed antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil were revealed to be no more effective than a placebo for most cases of depression; or when we learned that staying out of the sun entirely can actually increase cancer risks; or when we were told that the advice to drink lots of water during intense exercise was potentially fatal; or when, last April, we were informed that taking fish oil, exercising, and doing puzzles doesn’t really help fend off Alzheimer’s disease, as long claimed. Peer-reviewed studies have come to opposite conclusions on whether using cell phones can cause brain cancer, whether sleeping more than eight hours a night is healthful or dangerous, whether taking aspirin every day is more likely to save your life or cut it short, and whether routine angioplasty works better than pills to unclog heart arteries.
..Researchers headed into their studies wanting certain results—and, lo and behold, they were getting them. We think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously. “At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” says Ioannidis. “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.”
In the late 1990s, Ioannidis set up a base at the University of Ioannina. He pulled together his team, which remains largely intact today, and started chipping away at the problem in a series of papers that pointed out specific ways certain studies were getting misleading results. Other meta-researchers were also starting to spotlight disturbingly high rates of error in the medical literature. But Ioannidis wanted to get the big picture across, and to do so with solid data, clear reasoning, and good statistical analysis. The project dragged on, until finally he retreated to the tiny island of Sikinos in the Aegean Sea, where he drew inspiration from the relatively primitive surroundings and the intellectual traditions they recalled. “A pervasive theme of ancient Greek literature is that you need to pursue the truth, no matter what the truth might be,” he says. In 2005, he unleashed two papers that challenged the foundations of medical research.
…Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right. His 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 spelled out his belief that researchers were frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and even using the peer-review process—in which journals ask researchers to help decide which studies to publish—to suppress opposing views. “You can question some of the details of John’s calculations, but it’s hard to argue that the essential ideas aren’t absolutely correct,” says Doug Altman, an Oxford University researcher who directs the Centre for Statis
tics in Medicine.
Still, Ioannidis anticipated that the community might shrug off his findings: sure, a lot of dubious research makes it into journals, but we researchers and physicians know to ignore it and focus on the good stuff, so what’s the big deal? The other paper headed off that claim. He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
…Drug studies have the added corruptive force of financial conflict of interest. The exciting links between genes and various diseases and traits that are relentlessly hyped in the press for heralding miraculous around-the-corner treatments for everything from colon cancer to schizophrenia have in the past proved so vulnerable to error and distortion, Ioannidis has found, that in some cases you’d have done about as well by throwing darts at a chart of the genome. (These studies seem to have improved somewhat in recent years, but whether they will hold up or be useful in treatment are still open questions.) Vioxx, Zelnorm, and Baycol were among the widely prescribed drugs found to be safe and effective in large randomized controlled trials before the drugs were yanked from the market as unsafe or not so effective, or both.
But even for medicine’s most influential studies, the evidence sometimes remains surprisingly narrow. Of those 45 super-cited studies that Ioannidis focused on, 11 had never been retested. Perhaps worse, Ioannidis found that even when a research error is outed, it typically persists for years or even decades. He looked at three prominent health studies from the 1980s and 1990s that were each later soundly refuted, and discovered that researchers continued to cite the original results as correct more often than as flawed—in one case for at least 12 years after the results were discredited.
Doctors may notice that their patients don’t seem to fare as well with certain treatments as the literature would lead them to expect, but the field is appropriately conditioned to subjugate such anecdotal evidence to study findings. Yet much, perhaps even most, of what doctors do has never been formally put to the test in credible studies, given that the need to do so became obvious to the field only in the 1990s, leaving it playing catch-up with a century or more of non-evidence-based medicine, and contributing to Ioannidis’s shockingly high estimate of the degree to which medical knowledge is flawed. That we’re not routinely made seriously ill by this shortfall, he argues, is due largely to the fact that most medical interventions and advice don’t address life-and-death situations, but rather aim to leave us marginally healthier or less unhealthy, so we usually neither gain nor risk all that much.
Medical research is not especially plagued with wrongness. Other meta-research experts have confirmed that similar issues distort research in all fields of science, from physics to economics (where the highly regarded economists J. Bradford DeLong and Kevin Lang once showed how a remarkably consistent paucity of strong evidence in published economics studies made it unlikely that any of them were right). And needless to say, things only get worse when it comes to the pop expertise that endlessly spews at us from diet, relationship, investment, and parenting gurus and pundits. But we expect more of scientists, and especially of medical scientists, given that we believe we are staking our lives on their results. The public hardly recognizes how bad a bet this is. The medical community itself might still be largely oblivious to the scope of the problem, if Ioannidis hadn’t forced a confrontation when he published his studies in 2005.
…Rather, she’s concerned that, like many patients, he’ll end up with prescriptions for multiple drugs that will do little to help him, and may well harm him. “Usually what happens is that the doctor will ask for a suite of biochemical tests—liver fat, pancreas function, and so on,” she tells me. “The tests could turn up something, but they’re probably irrelevant. Just having a good talk with the patient and getting a close history is much more likely to tell me what’s wrong.” Of course, the doctors have all been trained to order these tests, she notes, and doing so is a lot quicker than a long bedside chat. They’re also trained to ply the patient with whatever drugs might help whack any errant test numbers back into line. What they’re not trained to do is to go back and look at the research papers that helped make these drugs the standard of care. “When you look the papers up, you often find the drugs didn’t even work better than a placebo. And no one tested how they worked in combination with the other drugs,” she says. “Just taking the patient off everything can improve their health right away.” But not only is checking out the research another time-consuming task, patients often don’t even like it when they’re taken off their drugs, she explains; they find their prescriptions reassuring.
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 does
n’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.”
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