Can We Trust Most Medical Studies on Health?

Believe it or not, the answer is an unequivocal NO!

It is well known that studies funded by the industry or conducted by researchers with industry ties tend to favor corporate interests, but it seems to be even worse.
In 2005, a researcher argued quite convincingly in a scientific journal, that most published scientific research is wrong. He based his argument on 49 papers in leading journals that had been cited by more than 1,000 other scientists, in other words, well-regarded research. What he found was that within only a few years, almost a third of the papers had been refuted by other studies.

In 2008, this same author with 2 more researchers proposed why in a study in Public Library of Science (PloS) Medicine, an online journal. They suggest that there are so many scientific papers pursuing very few pages in the most prestigious journals, that the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to proclaim impressive results that later turn out to be false. This results in a distorted picture of scientific data, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished.

According to a review of the paper in the Economist

“The group’s more general argument is that scientific research is so difficult—the sample sizes must be big and the analysis rigorous—that most research may end up being wrong. And the “hotter” the field, the greater the competition is and the more likely it is that published research in top journals could be wrong…….There also seems to be a bias towards publishing positive results. For instance, a study earlier this year found that among the studies submitted to America’s Food and Drug Administration about the effectiveness of antidepressants, almost all of those with positive results were published, whereas very few of those with negative results were. But negative results are potentially just as informative as positive results, if not as exciting.”

And a couple of months ago I read this great article in the Atlantic, called Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science. It is basically a summary and description of the same research that has shown again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. These wrong conclusions are what doctors use when they prescribe antibiotics or blood pressure medication, or when they recommend surgery for back pain or heart disease.

The bottom line

You need to take responsibility for your health. We cannot just assume that because something was published in a reputable scientific journal, it is necessarily reliable information. Drug companies are trying to sell their products and therefore the results of their studies are often biased. And as I say over and over, drugs usually just treat the symptoms, they do not address the underlying imbalances or decrease the total load on your body. Be aware of what you put into your body, the thoughts you think, how you nourish your body, how you move, how you relax and sleep, find things that give you meaning etc. These are what will keep you healthy. We don’t need scientific papers to convince us.

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  • Yes, and even for the layperson there are so many conflicting reports for the most basic inquiries.
    Here is a link to another article covering this topic from Newsweek.

  • Larry Dossey, MD

    This is a very important article that everyone interested in his/her health should pay attention to. Thanks, Dr. Lipman, for setting the record straight.

    Larry Dossey, MD

  • Larry, you have been a great mentor. Thank you for all that you do and

    have done to further the cause of a new emerging medicine!!!

  • I used to do some work in the field of evidence-based medicine. It turns out that a lot of medical practice actually has very little or no actual evidence in favor of it. It might make sense, but that is not quite the same thing as evidence. In fact, one of the major causes of deaths from heart attacks used to be the drugs they would give you to treat it, because no one bothered to actually rigorously test to see the drug’s effects on outcomes!

    Brad Johnson, Certified Medical Assistant