Can We Trust Pharmaceutical Sciences and Medicine?
Did you go to your physician this month? Did you take any medication? How do you know that the medicine is good for you? For that matter, are you sure that your nutritional supplements do what they promise? You trust your physician, but does he/she have access to accurate information in determining the benefit of the various treatment regimes? According to a fascinating article published in the Atlantic, they almost certainly do not. After all, physicians are trained to listen to the patients, order tests, and prescribe drugs, not to evaluate the research papers that made the treatments famous. For this, they are dependent on the integrity of the scientists and the efficacy of the peer review process.
Dr. John Ioannidis, formerly of Harvard University, Johns Hopkins and National Institutes of Health, is currently leading a team investigating whether medical research studies can be trusted and is making waves. He says that 90% of published results cannot. Moreover, he claims that peer-review by the scientific community is ineffective in addressing the problem. His research shows that, of the top 49 articles published in the last 13 years, only 25% of the claims to have found an effective intervention (e.g. daily aspirin or Vitamin E to reduce risk of heart attacks) were retested. This is understandable because 1) there is little funding for repeating someone else’s work, and 2) for an article to be accepted for publication it needs to contribute new understanding; repeated experiments do not. Of those claims that were re-tested, 41% were found to have been significantly exaggerated or simply wrong.
Dr. Ioannidis has investigated nutritional claims, miracle drugs, and “breakthrough” gene linkages and found all of the work to be unreliable. Therefore, he suggests that we ignore all nutritional claims, take as few drugs as possible, and—”stop expecting scientists to be right”. Perhaps funding on the basis of scientific merit instead of potential for an exciting result and freeing science from being controlled by financial considerations and professional advancement might help, as well. Meanwhile, if you forget to take your vitamins, don’t worry. They probably don’t make much difference anyway!