Flawed Scientific Research

Here is an article I recommend:

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science
By David H. Freedman

As a seeker of knowledge, this touches upon a major problem. Science is necessary as the closest thing we have to a fair arbiter of truth. I’m not a naive person and I know science can get manipulated and scientists are prone to biases like any other person. Science is based on noble Enlightenment ideals. When functioning well, it is an example of how a democratic process is implemented to achieve tangible results. When not functioning well (and without ethics to guide it), that is a whole other scenario. Anyone can use science to any end.

Medical science is particularly problematic. So much of medicine has been proven to be placebo. Besides issues of ethics, it’s not even clear how much research even achieves tangible results. To pull back the curtain on the Wizards of Medicine is to take some of the magic away from the placebo effect, the most powerful tool doctors have.

I was wondering about the details for science overall. Are there certain areas of medical research that are more reliable? Are there certain other scientific fields that are more reliable? Are there certain scientific research institutions or peer-reviewed journals that are more reliable? I’m always looking for the exceptions to the rule.

I would think fields involving greater wealth, power and prestige would have the greatest potential for bias and corruption. The medical field has all three of these to a massive degree, but not all other fields share these qualities and forces. The social sciences also would have the countervailing force of researchers in those fields being more expert in the study of human bias, along with less involvement of wealth, power and prestige (relative to the medical field). Plus, the social sciences is the one field that has been the most careful in dealing with the placebo effect and other problems by using such checks as double-blinds.

The scary part in this is that medical science is the one field that most directly deals with human life. Mistakes made there can have massive consequences, especially when false data is taken as the basis for practices used by doctors. The medical field needs to take more seriously what the social scientists have known for decades. Also, the medical field has got to deal with the corporate funding problem because there will be no push for reform as long as the corporate agenda is what researchers are becoming increasingly dependent upon. I don’t mind someone profiting from creating real solutions to real problems, but in many cases that isn’t what is happening.

This is definitely food for thought.

8 thoughts on “Flawed Scientific Research

  1. I know exactly what you’re talking about, I’ve seen it first-hand. I’m currently in the process of trying to make an informed decision about my health, and have received a lot of conflicting information. There’s a new book out called Medicare Meltdown which addresses some of this, I saw the author on C-Span.

    • My interest is less personal, relative to your situation. I’m not involved in any major decisions about my health. I have my depression, but I long ago gave up on the hope medical science could help me.

      Instead, my interest is more as a lover of truth and knowledge. I also can’t help but see the political angle. What corrupts the democratic process in politics is the same problems that corrupt the democratic process in science. Along with knowledge and truth, I’m also a lover of democracy.

      It all goes together in my mind. And the reason it matters is because it tangibly effects innocent people. Just like workers in capitalism, without massive and careful regulation, patients will end up exploited in a profit-driven healthcare system. The only way to get good info to the patient is to prioritize democracy, truth and knowledge over profit, power and prestige.

      I’m a dreamer.

      • I guess you are a dreamer, so I must be too. I didn’t realize until relatively recently how corrupted science has become, largely because of money but also because of telling people what they want to hear. The thing is, science bills itself as “truth” based on empirical evidence, as opposed to religion for example, which is a matter of faith based on little or no evidence. So the implication is that it holds itself to a higher standard. Yes absolutely patients will be exploited in our profit-driven health care system, its already happening.

        • On the positive side, science offers us the greatest hope in collectively solving our problems. On the negative side, that might not be saying much.

          Democratic processes only work in a democratic society with a democratic culture guided by democratic values toward democratic ends. We are far from that vision of society, but I can’t help thinking that it should be possible. The basic concept of democracy is simple and fits the human nature of most people, although maybe not the human nature of those at the extremes who have disproportionate power and influence.

          There is the rub.

          • I don’t think its an oversimplification to say that the problem with democracy is that it is based on peoples’ notions of what is fair and just, as well as how much they value honesty. People are all over the place on these issues, today more than ever. At one time it seemed that there was a basic consensus about fairness and justice in our society, including how far one could go to achieve one’s ends, but that’s out the window now, anything goes. We’ve gone back to “might (both literally and figuratively) makes right.” I think there are many and complex reasons for this, but we’ve lost our moral compass.

  2. I gained some clarification on this issue the other day.

    My cousin is a genetics researcher. He happened to be visiting. I had earlier mentioned the above article to my dad who then mentioned it during the visit.

    My cousin explained that most research done by doctors is of low quality because most doctors aren’t trained scientists and so don’t know proper research methodology. Doctors end up doing a lot of research, though, because only they are trained to work with patients and hence do research with patients. It is more rare and expensive for doctors and scientists to work together on the same study. Also, medical research has the problem of ethics directly related to working with human patients and so such things as control groups isn’t always possible.

    So, it seems I was correct in my suspicion that the problems of medical field wouldn’t represent other fields of research.

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