The Problem with Medical Science (Fiction)
Most of us would like to believe that the drugs and vaccines our doctor prescribes have been thoroughly tested and proved to be effective for whatever ails us. More and more information is coming to light to show that this is not always so.
An article in The Atlantic last year described the work of Dr. John Ioannidis, a celebrated researcher who has made his name by pointing out the problems in scientific research today. He and his team have shown that we have good reason to distrust the conclusions of most, if not all, of biomedical studies. The range of errors committed in these studies is astounding:
from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals.
According to Ioannidis, the problem is endemic to the medical system. Researchers have to get their work published in well-regarded journals in order to make a living. Rejection rates for these journals are very high, so researchers are pushed to design studies with eye-catching findings; but these findings rarely hold up under intensive study, even if they are the ones most widely publicized. This is why many widely accepted findings (such as the effectiveness of fish oil and physical and mental exercise in staving off Alzheimer’s disease) are refuted by later studies.
It is very difficult to design a study that does reach an irrefutable conclusion. As Ioannidis explains in the article, in every study, researchers are sifting through large amounts of information in order to reach a conclusion. While weighing so many different nutritional and health factors, researchers are bound to come across apparent connections that are just flukes, and not real health effects. Even if the study does highlight a genuine positive health effect of some nutrient, consuming more of that nutrient might not help the average person at all. This is because we consume thousands of different nutrients that all work together, and the effect of increasing the intake of one of these nutrients may affect the way all the others react in ways that the study cannot measure. So increasing the intake of that nutrient may actually harm you.
Studies also rarely track health in the long run. They don’t track the actual course of a disease, or the long-term impact of a drug or a nutrient. The short-run benefit of a nutrient might not equal a long-term benefit. In fact, the studies that do track long-term health often contradict the findings of the short-term studies. For example, vaccines which prevent infectious diseases in childhood may cause health problems later in life. The mumps is a benign illness in childhood, but causes more complications in older age groups. Immunity wanes in many people as they age, causing an increase in mumps cases at ages where the disease can be more dangerous. Meanwhile, researcher Gary Goldman discovered that vaccinating children against chicken pox leads to an increased rate of shingles in both children and adults. Shingles is a far more dangerous illness than the chicken pox. Many other examples like these can be found in medical literature.
Medical studies may suffer from measurement errors (for example, if they rely on people self-reporting on their diet or health), incorrect analysis of data (by the software researchers rely on), and even fraud.
If a study avoids all of the above pitfalls, its result is still based on an average of a wide range of typical outcomes. In other words, if it finds, say, that “Vitamin A helps fight cancer,” what it really means is that “Vitamin A helps fight cancer in a minority of people we studied.” If you are part of that lucky minority, you still might not see a noticeable improvement in health, because the study is measuring small benefits to health, not major, life-changing ones. You’re probably best off, as Dr. Ioannidis says, ignoring the studies altogether.
Many scientists and even medical journals admit that these issues exist. However, not much is being done about it. Indeed, Ioannidis found that studies that had been refuted were still being cited years after they had been discredited.
Medical & Vaccine Studies
Drug and vaccine trials and studies are even more untrustworthy than those dealing with nutrition, since they also involve the financial interest of pharmaceutical companies. In addition, many of these studies use placebos that help them achieve the outcome they want. There are no laws regulating the contents of placebos, and one study found that researchers rarely divulged the contents of placebos in their research.
Even more worrying, many studies actually use components of the drug or vaccine in the placebo. Many studies on vaccines that contain aluminum adjuvants test the vaccines against placebos that also contain aluminum adjuvants. Placebos are generally supposed to have no side effects, but these placebos, which contain aluminum compounds, do affect our bodies and therefore give a distorted impression of the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine.
Another problem with vaccine and drug studies is that they don’t study their interaction with other vaccines and drugs. In the case of vaccines, many childhood vaccines are given at the same time, or with a very short time period in between. To date, no study has examined the long-term effect on children of having all of these vaccines given in such a short time frame, and during such a critical period of development. In fact, the National Autism Association just came out with a new ad asking the Food and Drug Administration when they are going to begin studying the effects of multiple vaccination.
Other problems with these studies include untested assumptions of vaccine effectiveness, long term effects of vaccine contamination from the culture medium, gene-toxin interactions, and a generally weak scientific understanding of the vastly complex immune system and how it interacts with brain development early in childhood. In fact, antibiotics and other drugs are frequently administered during infancy and childhood for ear and respiratory infections, and the interaction of those drugs with vaccines has never been adequately studied, especially for long term effects on children’s health and development.
The Bottom Line
The peer review publishing industry and industry-supported science needs greater independent oversight to make sure that fraudulent and invalid studies do not become the basis for costly healthcare interventions that may harm, or at least not help, patients. Independent research, outside of government, industry and academia, that is peer reviewed in light of the problems described above is in the public’s interest and should be supported by charitable organizations and foundations.