Tag Archives: Bernard Lown

Bias, bias everywhere

For hundreds of years, medicine was driven by anecdote and personal beliefs, without the slightest supportive evidence. In the nineteen twenties the most common operation done was ‘removal of toxic colon.’ Toxic colons were believed to be responsible for almost any symptom you could think of.

  • Headache…..toxic colon
  • Anxiety…toxic colon
  • Stomach pain…toxic colon… obviously
  • Cramps…toxic colon, etc. etc.

Surgeons became blindingly wealthy cutting out significant lengths of the large bowel in those who could afford it. This operation, and the greed and stupidity that drove it, is outlined in the book ‘Doctors Dilemmas’, by George Bernard Shaw.  He went on to say that: ‘If you pay people to cut things out of you, then that it exactly what they are going to do.’

Not many people have their toxic colons removed nowadays, in fact no-one does, as the condition no longer even exists. But many people still have coronary artery bypass grafts done. Although there is not the slightest evidence that this does any good either. For more on this read Bernard Lown’s essay

Anyway, over time doctors began to recognise that if you were going to cut things out of people, or prescribe drugs, it would be nice to know if any of this activity actually did any good. And so began the dawning of the age of evidence based medicine (EBM). (Evidence based medicine is a far more recent movement than you might think, not really getting under way until the 1980s).

The individuals who really drove this forward e.g. Sackett, Cochrane, Muir-Gray were extremely hard working idealists. They were highly ethical and had the patient’s interest at heart. They taught EBM on wards with students, and looked for evidence wherever they could find it.

This was a much more difficult thing to do before the advent of the world wide web. I remember searching around for papers in medical libraries, taking literally hours to find the papers I was looking for. Something I can now do in seconds on the Internet.

In theory, of course, EBM should be a very good thing, and in some ways it has been. However, EBM relies entirely on the belief that the evidence you are using is accurate, or true, or believable, or unbiased, or whatever form of words you are most comfortable with. This may have been true once upon a time, but things have most certainly changed.

In the early days a great deal of research was carried out in major teaching Universities. Doctors and researchers would set up the trials, run them, and analyse the results. However, the turn of the millennium less than a third of drug related studies were being done in academic units.

To quote from the New York Times:

The removal of research from academic centres also gives pharmaceutical companies greater control over the design of studies, analysis of data, and publication of results.

The end result: among even the highest quality clinical research the odds are 5.3 times greater that commercially funded studies will support their sponsor’s products than non-commercially funded studies. The authors conclude, “Readers should carefully evaluate whether conclusions in randomized trials are supported by data.” Careful readers with enough time can sometimes spot discrepancies between data and conclusions in published studies. However, the drug companies typically retain control over the data from their sponsored trials so the majority of the researchers don’t have open access to the results from their own studies.’ Petersen M. ‘Madison Ave. has growing role in the business of drug research.’ New York Times, November, 2002.

In a similar, if less emotive vein, the most downloaded paper within recent medical scientific literature was written by John Lonnadis. It was entitled ‘Why most published research findings are false.’

The vast majority of people have never heard of this paper. The vast majority of those who have heard of it have never read it, and the vast majority of those who have read it, have clearly not understood the implications of what they have just read. Or, if they have…they are too frightened to do anything about it.

The shortest summary of his research is, as follows:

Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.’ J Lonnadis.

These words sound relatively mild, but the implications are explosive. Basically, many researchers are claiming that they have proved something to be true, but all they have actually done is to manipulate their research in order to confirm what they already ‘knew’ to be true.

In essence, medical research has become horribly biased, to the point where David Sackett (a hero of mine) has virtually withdrawn from the arena

According to the founder of Evidence Based Medicine experts are hindering the healthy advancement of science.

Writing in this week’s British Medical Journal (BMJ), Canadian-based researcher, David Sackett, said that he would “never again lecture, write, or referee anything to do with evidence based clinical practice”. Sackett is not doing this because he has ceased to believe in evidence based clinical practice but, as the BMJ comments, because he is worried about the power of experts in stifling new ideas and wants the retirement of experts to be made compulsory.

Sackett claims that the prestige of experts (including himself) gives their opinions far greater persuasive power than they deserve on scientific grounds alone.”Whether through deference, fear, or respect, others tend not to challenge them, and progress towards the truth is impaired in the presence of an expert,” he writes.

He also argues that expert bias against new ideas operates during the review of grant applications and manuscripts. “Reviewers face the unavoidable temptation to accept or reject new evidence and ideas, not on the basis of scientific merit, but on the extent to which they agree or disagree with the public positions taken by experts on these matters.” http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/health/HealthRepublish_124166.htm

When the man who virtually invented evidence based medicine states that research has become institutionally biased, where can we look? I am not sure. I will leave you with a thought from Professor Bruce Charlton

The decline of honesty in science

Anyone who has been a scientist for more than 20 years will realize that there has been a progressive decline in the honesty of communications between scientists, between scientists and their institutions, and between scientists and their institutions and the outside world.

Yet real science must be an arena where truth is the rule; or else the activity simply stops being science and becomes something else: Zombie science. Zombie science is a science that is dead, but is artificially kept moving by a continual infusion of funding. From a distance Zombie science look like the real thing, the surface features of a science are in place – white coats, laboratories, computer programming, PhDs, papers, conference, prizes, etc. But the Zombie is not interested in the pursuit of truth – its citations are externally-controlled and directed at non-scientific goals, and inside the Zombie everything is rotten…..

Scientists are usually too careful and clever to risk telling outright lies, but instead they push the envelope of exaggeration, selectivity and distortion as far as possible. And tolerance for this kind of untruthfulness has greatly increased over recent years. So it is now routine for scientists deliberately to ‘hype’ the significance of their status and performance and ‘spin’ the importance of their research.

Bruce Charlton: Professor of Theoretical Medicine

So, what can be done?