Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bad Science, Bad Medicine?

The 4/16/2012 New York Times published a disturbing article, "A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform".

Basically, they discussed the alarming rise of inaccurate (or sometimes outright fraudulent) results being published in respectable medical journals, which then require retraction when the error (or misconduct) is discovered.

As they investigated the source of the problem, two medical journal editors,
...reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem -- "a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate”...
Although the system of peer review is supposed to minimize this from happening, the article notes the following factors making the problem worse:
* "[S]cience has changed in some worrying ways in recent decades — especially biomedical research, which consumes a larger and larger share of government science spending"

* "To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there."

* "The higher a journal's impact factor, the two editors found, the higher its retraction rate."
That last item is especially eye-opening. In other words, some of the most prestigious journals (such as The New England Journal of Medicine), have the highest retraction rates. Yet these are supposed to be the most authoritative sources for "clinical practice guidelines".

This leads to the following disturbing conclusions:

1) As Glenn Reynolds notes, "There's lots of government money. That leads to corruption."

2) This bad science will be used to set "clinical practice guidelines" for physicians. This goes under various names such as "evidence based medicine". But the guidelines are only as good as the science -- which is becoming demonstrably less trustworthy.

3) Under Obamacare there will be an increasing push for doctors to adhere to these "practice guidelines", or face financial penalties. So in other words, government-funded science and government-mandated medical practice standards will increasingly foist bad treatments onto an unsuspecting population.

Let's hope that ObamaCare is overturned by the Supreme Court (or repealed by Congress) before it's too late.