Friday, March 20, 2009

Science for sale

Please enjoy the above webcomic (from xkcd).
The essential problem that I have with science is bias. Every study, every statistic, has been bought and paid for by someone. Data can be manipulated in all manner of ways. A classic example is the "link" between the MMR vaccine and autism- initially put forth in a 1998 study, whose lead has now been found to have manipulated data. "Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.
"Last week official figures showed that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported last year, compared with 56 in 1998. Two children have died of the disease." This is just one example- this 1998 study, though flawed, has influenced many people.

In 2002 I had the opportunity to go to a conference that I thought would be about my field (health care), but it really was about sales: selling medications. Chocolate and champagne flowed freely. (I swear I had no idea of the hedonism that awaited me. I went in good faith.) One of the many powerpoint luncheons really struck me: it was sponsored by a company that I knew made a drug that did not work. Time and again I would offer it to patients, and after trying it once, they all said the same things: It doesn't work; the side effects are intolerable. Then, at this powerpoint, the data-- with graphs conveniently skewed for emphasis-- showed that it worked...just a little bit, in conjunction with another medication that we all knew does work, does its job, does it reliably well. We were encouraged strongly to use the med that sucked. It was a weird experience for me, and rather surreal.

My point is that everyone (full disclosure: this includes me) has his or her own agenda. Data can be spun in different ways. I really want to trust science-- really I do--but I am not sure that human beings, with all our flaws, are capable of objectivity.

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