Think Twice When Someone Claims “A Study Shows”
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The world we live in today looks very different from the world a hundred years ago in large part due to science. Advances in chemistry, medicine, and physics have brought us remarkable materials that make airplanes, life changing medications, and computers possible. Science uses logic, observation, and experiments to unlock the mysteries of the physical world, and it depends on facts, and the meticulous scrutiny of the conclusions scientists make based on their experiments. It seems hard to believe, but only ninety years ago Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. By accident, he left a petri dish on his lab bench before going on vacation that he had inoculated with bacteria. When he returned two weeks later, he found that some of the bacteria had grown in the dish but that also a mold had grown there too, and he observed that no bacteria grew near the mold. He ran many experiments to understand which molds killed bacteria. Through his work, he discovered the first antibiotics, launching a revolution in healthcare. In 1928, when Fleming discovered penicillin, communicable diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, syphilis, and tuberculosis caused the majority of human deaths and limited the life expectancy of men and women in the United States to less than fifty years. Today, due to antibiotics and immunizations, people have a life expectancy of seventy-nine years in the US, and non-communicable diseases such as heart failure, stroke, and cancer have replaced the communicable diseases as the primary cause of death today.
Many examples of great science changing the course of health and society fill the history books, but not all science gets conducted equally. Because science has done such remarkable things for society does not mean that we should stop being critical of scientific studies and the conclusions that they draw. Moreover, a fundamental part of scientific research requires that scientific research be repeatable by other laboratories for it to be valid. The anti-vaccine movement both in the United States and abroad serves as a powerful example of people grabbing onto a scientific conclusion without interrogating the study from which it came. In the 1980s, the anti-vaccine movement began with a television piece written, produced, and featuring Lea Thompson titled, “DPT: Vaccine Roulette” aired on an NBC affiliate station in Washington DC and later on the Today Show. The show featured children with mental disabilities that their parents attributed to the diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus vaccine they had received. Later in 1998, the researcher Andrew Wakefield and associates published a paper in the British Journal The Lancet titled "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular Hyperplasia, Non-specific Colitis, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder in Children" that claimed, based on the evaluation of twelve children, a causal link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism and colitis. People around the world took the publication to heart and refused to have their children vaccinated, resulting in a resurgence of pockets of infectious disease with children getting sick and even dying. For example, an article titled, “Association Between Vaccine Refusal and Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States” in the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 2016 describes a resurgence in communicable diseases among un-vaccinated people in the US. Following Wakefield’s paper, a number of laboratories around the world worked to replicate his findings, and none of them could do it. One such paper was authored by Brent Taylor and titled, “Autism and Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine: no Epidemiological Evidence for a Causal Association.” (Lancet, 1999) Furthermore, the journalist Brian Deer worked tirelessly to investigate the work of Wakefield finding that the research had not been just wrong but outright falsified. Wakefield’s research articles have since been retracted from the scientific literature, and the British General Medical Council revoked Wakefield’s license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom. (The Times, 2010)
Science with the proper use of experimental design, observation, and analysis has transformed our understanding of the physical world and transformed our society with substantial improvements in public health leading to longer lives for people and the removal of communicable diseases as the primary cause of death in the United States. However, science and scientists remain fallible, and the scientific community and the public must remain vigilant and question experimental results to be certain of the validity of their conclusions. We saw that faulty science propagated by concerned people led to real disease outbreaks and even deaths. When science produces findings that challenge current thinking, we must look at the science carefully, challenge the conclusions, and see if the other laboratories can reproduce the results before accepting the new discoveries.
Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.