In my five years in the blogosphere, two years blogging for SBM, and over a decade in Internet discussion forums about medicine and “alternative” medicine, I’ve learned a few things. One thing that I’ve learned is that one of the biggest differences between those whose world view is based on science and who therefore promote science-based medicine and those promoting pseudoscience, quackery, and anti-science is that science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free, open, and vigorous debate. Indeed, to outsiders, this debate can seem (and sometimes is) vicious. In other words, if you’re going to be a scientist, you need to have a thick skin because you will have to defend your hypotheses and conclusions, sometimes against some very hostile other scientists. That same attitude of a Darwinian struggle between scientific ideas, with only those best supported by evidence and with the most explanatory power surviving, is a world view that those not steeped in science have a hard time understanding.
Among those who don’t understand science, few have a harder time with the rough-and-tumble debate over evidence and science that routinely goes on among scientists than those advocating pseudoscience. Indeed, in marked contrast to scientists, they tend to cultivate cultures of the echo chamber. Examples abound and include discussion forums devoted to “alternative” medicine like CureZone, where never is heard a discouraging word — because anyone expressing too much skepticism about the prevailing view on such forums invariably finds himself first shunned by other members of the discussion forums and then, if he persists, booted from the forum by the moderators. In marked contrast, on skeptical forums, most of the time almost anything goes. True, the occasional supporter of woo who finds his way onto a skeptical forum will face a lot of criticism, some of it brutal. However, rarely will such a person be banned, unless he commits offenses unrelated to his questioning of scientific dogma, such as insulting or abusive behavior towards other forum participants or trolling. Such people may annoy the heck out of us skeptics sometimes, but on the other hand, they do actually from time to time challenge us to defend our science and prevent us from becoming too complacent. Indeed, that’s what I like about skeptics and being a scientist. Nothing or no one is sacred.
I’m a translational researcher. To those of you who aren’t familiar with what that means, it means (I hope) that I study potential therapies in the lab and try to translate them into actual therapies that will cure patients of breast cancer — or, at the very least, improve their odds of survival or prolong survival when cure is not possible. Translational research is extremely important; indeed, it is the life blood of science-based medicine, with basic science producing the discoveries and clinical research the applications of these discoveries. When it works, it’s the way that science leads medicine to advance. However, sometimes I think that it’s a bit oversold. For one thing, it’s not easy, and it’s not always obvious what basic science findings can be translated into useful therapies, be it for cancer (my specialty) or any other disease. For another thing, it takes a long time. The problem is that the hype about how much we as a nation invest in translational research all too often leads to a not unreasonable expectation that there will be a rapid return on that investment. Such an expectation is often not realized, at least not as fast and frequently as we would like, and the reason has little to do with the quality of the science being funded. It has arguably more to do with how long it takes for a basic science observation to follow the long and winding road to producing a viable therapy. But how long is that long and winding road?
A lot longer than many, even many scientists, realize. At least, that’s the case if a paper from about a year ago by John Ioannidis in Science is any indication. The article appeared in the Policy Forum in the September 5 issue and is entitled Life Cycle of Translational Research for Medical Interventions. As you may recall, Dr. Ioannidis made a name for himself a couple of years ago by publishing a pair of articles provocatively entitled Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, which Steve Novella blogged about a couple of years ago.
Dr. Ioannidis lays it out right in the first paragraph:
Causation is not so simple to determine as one would think. A mantra at SBM is ‘association is not causation’ and much of the belief in the efficacy of a variety of quack nostrums occurs because improvement occurs after use of a nostrum, therefore improvement occurs because of use of a nostrum. It is why vaccines as a cause of autism are so compelling to some. Vaccines are given at the same time autism starts to manifest. It would require more intellectual power than I have not to conclude, wrongly, that vaccines caused the autism. Concluding causation from sequential events is how the human mind works, and reality, as we know and ignore, constantly conspires to fool us into making false causal connections. In Infectious Diseases I see the error almost daily. The patient had a fever, patient was given antibiotics, fever went away. Therefore the antibiotics treated an infection. Well, maybe, maybe not. One of my mantras is ‘antibiotics are not antipyretics’ and you must be very careful before concluding that the fever went away because of the penacephalone. (more…)