But if medical research isn't objective and scientific, then what is it? Just a mouthpiece for things we already believe? It seems too often to be just that. At the worst extreme, organizations fund research that confirms their viewpoint. Hence, all those stories that red wine is good for you are funded by the French government; the Dutch are behind the pro-chocolate studies; and we all know about drug research that doesn't turn up problems with new drugs.
Even at its best, medical research is skewed too much by the beliefs of researchers. Here's another story from recent press: Soft drinks clearly associated with diabetes - report (from the New Zealand Herald). This article starts, "A review of published studies shows a clear and consistent relationship between drinking sugary (non-diet) soft drinks and poor nutrition, increased risk for obesity -- and increased risk for diabetes. There is no denying that sugar-loaded soft drinks are having "a negative impact on health," Dr Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a telephone interview."
Actually, there is a lot of denying it. A study that finds that people who drink soda pop are more likely to have health problems does not tell us at all that soda pop causes health problems. In fact, the likely culprit is that people who tend to drink soda also tend to have other habits that lead to health problems. Like they're more likely to eat meals at fast food restaurants, or they drink less milk, or they're less likely to be interested in diet. Or maybe it isn't the sugar intake that causes the diabetes but diabetes that is causing the sugar craving. Or another condition that causes both - perhaps even a mental condition like depression or plain old teenage angst (overeating as a slow form of suicide).
But okay, okay, it's pretty likely that drinking large quantities of sugary pop (which is high in sugar) is going to have an effect on your blood sugar, and because it's high calorie it's probably connected to weight gain, but did the study prove these connections? Not at all. This study didn't even bother to measure how much sugary pop was drunk, so there's no indication that it was consumed in harmful quantities. How are we going to learn anything new if we just keep "proving" what we already believe to be true?
(By the way, I neither smoke nor drink sugary soda pop, so please don't take this post as an argument for either of them.)
Along with the problems of the way the data is analysed, there are problems with the way it's collected. Why do we have thousands upon thousands of short-term, small studies? Why doesn't our government take most of its funding for medical research and put it into one huge long-term study? It could then make the information available to everyone in a huge database - as it does with economic data.
Broader data collection might reduce some of the biases that occur in research design. Factors that were considered irrelevant might emerge as worth looking into. Where possible, throw in DNA, family history, information about every place the individual lived, and a lifetime of medical data.
For specific issues, researchers could prepare add-on studies. The goal would always be to have as large a sample size, and long a time frame, as possible, so data collection would often go on for longer than the researcher's own time frame.
Allowing many people access to the data would lead to much better, more objective analysis. It would also allow for much better reviews.
* The Scandal of Poor Medical Research
* 500,000 people, a span of decades - and a waste of time and money?