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A CRITIQUE OF THE MRC REPORT, 2002.

Sleazy Research Tricks

According to the rules, theories attain the status of facts after they have been rigorously tested by reliable, replicable, high-quality research. In practice, a substantial body of studies supporting a given theory, published in the best journals (e.g. New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and the Journal of the American Medical Association), establishes that theory as 'fact'.

Often, however, the harried researcher, pressed for time in the pursuit of lucrative grants or frustrated by studies that refuse (for unknown reasons) to produce the desired results, has recourse to certain shortcuts. It is important to note that the underlying active Ingredient in any of the following ploys is usually a powerful 'tell us what we want to hear' effect. If your study 'proves' something that the prospective funder wants to believe, there will rarely be any problem.

Big-Naming: Get a big-name scientist as co-author, and the backing of a prestigious research institute or university ('backing', in this case, can be as minimal as use of a Ietterhead and address) and you're in business.

Circular Referencing: Researcher A mentions in a footnote that Compound X as been "proven" completely harmless. Researcher B quotes A, and is In turn quoted by Researchers C, D and E. The next time Researcher A discusses the topic, he cites the papers by B, C, D and E as further proof of his original claim. If someone tries, to pin you down on your original footnote, cite a "personal communication" (e.g., phone call or unofficial letter) with another scientist. It's best if your personal communicant lives far away, is difficult to reach, doesn't speak English or, better still, is dead.

Step-Wise Exaggeration: Researcher A publishes a study proposing that smoking is responsible for 8% of all lung cancer. Researcher B cites the study, saying that smoking is responsible for "nearly a tenth” of all lung cancer. Researcher C translates this to 10% and Researcher D points out that since smokers are only half the population, this 100% is really 20%. Researcher E casually refers to D's paper, giving the statistic as "almost a quarter" of the population, having forgotten that it was only smokers that D was talking about. Finally, Researcher A, upon, reading E's report, notes that current studies now show that smoking is responsible for three times as much of the lung cancer as he originally thought, i.e., 25% instead of 8%. When A's statement is published prominently in several major daily newspapers, Researchers B, C, D and E all triple their previous estimates, citing the highly respected A. Thus the original 8% has ballooned up to 75% in E's revised estimate.

Naive Subtraction: Researcher A decides to estimate the environmental causes of cancer by taking the known cancer rate and subtracting all 'proven' sources of cancer from it. By using generous estimates for these causes (preferably lifestyle factors like smoking and diet), Researcher A finds that only 2-3% of all cancers are “unexplained”. This tiny residual thus becomes the ceiling figure for environmentally caused cancers.

Dry-Labbing: To ‘dry-lab’ a study means to fake it; to make up the numbers without actually bothering with all those test tubes and things. The chances that anyone will ever ask you to produce your original lab reports and notebooks are pretty slim. Recent experience shows that even if a lab worker sells out and denounces you, he or she is unlikely to be believed. Of course, someone could replicate your study and fail to get the same (i.e. faked) results; but you simply accuse him or her of screwing up somewhere. It will take, at the very least, several years for anyone to sort it all out.

Competing Toxicity: The FDA has demanded, as a pre-condition to licensing, that DeathCo's new product, Liquid Death, be tested for its potential to cause cancer. So DeathCo gives Liquid Death to 17,000 mice - but at a dose so high that they all die within weeks. Since It usually takes several months for a tumour to develop, very few cancers are reported. Such a high death-rate could be some cause for concern. However the FDA didn't ask, "How many mice will drop dead in weeks?”; it asked, “How many will develop cancer if they are given Liquid Death?". DeathCo's study is published as 'proof' that Liquid Death doesn't cause cancer, “even when very high doses are administered". This 'proof' stands unchallenged until someone with 17,000 spare mice is able to replicate the study.

(Source: Hippocrates Newsletter, late 1997; Hippocrates Health Centre, Elaine Avenue, Mudgeeraba Qld 4213, Australia.) Doctors are Dangerous (opens in a new window)

References

[1] Commons Hansard, 29 Jan 2001 : Column 147.

[2] Brief Analysis of the York Review (on this site).

[3] Children’s dental health in the United Kingdom 1993 (OPCS).

[4] www.dundee.ac.uk/dhsru/bascd/bascd.htm.

Appendix

MRC Working Group Membership:
Professor Anthony McMichael (Chair; London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - left the Working Group July 2001);
Dr. Paul Harrison (Deputy Chair; MRC Institute for Environment and Health, Leicester);
Professor David Coggon (MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, Southampton);
Ms Ailsa Harrison (MRC Consumer Liaison Group);
Dr.Timothy Key (University of Oxford);
Professor Michael Lennon (University of Liverpool);
Dr. Peter Mansfield (Lincolnshire - left the Working Group September 2001);
Professor Stephen Palmer (University of Wales College of Medicine);
Dr. Mark Petticrew (MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow);
Professor Nigel Pitts (University of Dundee);
Professor Andrew Rugg-Gunn (University of Newcastle);
Professor Elizabeth Treasure (University of Wales College of Medicine);
Dr.Alan Glanz (Department of Health);
Dr. Michael Waring (Department of Health);
Mr Jerry Read (Department of Health);
Dr.Anthony Peatfield (MRC Head Office, replaced by Dr Declan Mulkeen in September 2001),
Dr.Angela Cooper (MRC Head Office, replaced by Dr Matthew Wakelin in July 2001).


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