80 Percent Of All Medical Studies Are Lies

” 'Doctors?' said Ron startled. 'Those Muggle nutters that cut people up?' ” —J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

In A Nutshell

Somewhere around 80 percent of all medical research—the studies that determine what’s good for us and what new drugs are awesome—are flawed or outright lies made up by the people conducting them. The reason for this is a simple, sometimes-innocent conflict of interest (though it’s usually not innocent). Drug companies desire certain results from a new product for obvious, financial reasons. Researchers desire funding and often only get it if they can deliver on an outcome. And sometimes, just wanting something to happen makes a scientist more likely to see things that aren’t there.

The Whole Bushel

The problem of flawed research in the field of medicine begins with researchers who have a strong desire to have their work published in respected journals. The rejection rate for papers is high, often above 90 percent, and the ones that are accepted tend to have (as stupid as this might sound) more exciting titles that promise something new. However, coming up with surprising and exciting results is really difficult. There’s a tendency, according to Dr. John Ioannidis, the leading expert on the credibility of medical studies, for researchers to basically arrange their studies, knowingly and unknowingly sometimes, so that they get the results they anticipate. Otherwise, they don’t get published.

Even worse, the media picks up on these studies and often reports them as fact, even when, for example, there are already other studies that contradict the new and interesting one. This is the origin of shifting health claims: One day, something is good for you; the next day, it’s bad. Beer drinking, for example, may make you smarter or more stupid, depending on which study you go with.

Of course, one of these claim may in fact be true, but telling the difference is difficult, even for doctors. Ioannidis’s first study on the credibility of medical research discovered that “80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials.” So an easy fix would be to mostly rely on information gathered from studies requiring a higher standard, right?

Too bad Ioannidis’s second study showed that a lot of the most widely accepted truths of medicine, things that came from the gold and platinum standard, were also incorrect. Out of 34 widely accepted research studies, 14 were wrong or the results exaggerated dramatically. These aren’t quirky studies about beer drinking either, but actual treatments being used by patients right now.

How this is allowed to happen is well understood. The 34 studies mentioned above came from a larger body of 45 accepted pieces of research. Ioannidis could only really examine 34 because the remaining 11 had never been re-tested or looked at again, which is odd considering that actual treatment follows some of these studies. But even after further studies found problems, the findings in the original study stuck around in the medical community, still accepted as the truth, sometimes for decades.

So what should we do when it comes to dealing with all the people telling us how to improve our health with vitamins and fish oil and beer? Ioannidis says “Ignore them all” for the most part, because a lot of the research deals with marginal gains in health, none of which are based on research reliable enough to take seriously.

[NOTE: Paul K Pickett wants you to know that he is not a doctor. Doctors are doctors. And while a lot of the research in medicine has been called into question, your doctor is still the best person to give you advice concerning your health.]

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  • Anon

    How do we know Ioannidis’s study is not ‘flawed’…??

    • Lede

      According to statisticians, it has enough flaws not to be taken as proof of anything. They do, however, agree that studies are not nearly as definitive as people think, but if you understand the workings of the scientific method this should not be surprising.

      http://biostats.bepress.com/jhubiostat/paper135/

      • Mike Van Orden

        if you understand stats and ever took a research methods class, you learn more and more to have an extreme level of skepticism for all studies. While some are just impossible to ignore in their conclusions of causation, others are often how you’ve manipulated the variables, how you input the #’s when running the stats, and how you choose to overlook and ignore a variety of confounding variables or reasons why the outcome may have been what it was rather than what you chose to conclude it was. Add in on top of that the fact that media reports on studies don’t put any level of scrutiny into how the study was carried out and basically just assumes because it was a “scientific study” it must be a legitimate conclusion.

        • Lede

          Very true. Fortunately, badly flawed studies are often caught by other researchers and the study findings questioned. Of course, the process isn’t foolproof, not by a long shot. But what is, when human beings are involved? Everything should be considered with a healthy skepticism.

          Reporting of new studies by the media is sometimes very troubling. Huge pieces are written about sensational new “studies”, which are later proved to be utter bunk. The rebuttals very rarely get big headlines. The 2012 French GMO rat study incident might be one of the very few that caused such great outrage that the media actually picked up on the criticism, too.

          • Mike Van Orden

            Yeah, sometimes the evidence is so apparent that not even the media or governments entities (or any party of interest) can distort the truth of something.

  • rhijulbec

    Unreal…I take two very controversial drugs, one of which is for diabetes. Depending on what study you read this drug will cause anything from a dramatically increased chance of a heart attack or stroke (in the neighbourhood of a 60-80% higher incidence in people who take this drug) , bladder cancer, breast cancer…and on and on. The drug has been banned in almost every country due to this study. BUT as my Dr said this is the result of two drs combining the results of several (dozens actually) studies and extrapolating these dangers. Problem is many of the studies they used were deeply flawed and now gov’ts are looking at backing off with the bans and the severe restrictions on prescribing this drug. It is literally my last stop before using the needle. So what to believe? I’m a nurse and used to know a great deal about RX drugs, so I guess I will have to trust my Dr who feels this is a safer drug than several other diabetic drugs or its replacement with insulin. How does one know what to do?

  • gillybean

    Wow, it’s scary when a handful of people get to gamble with the lives of the rest of us. Maybe you could find doctors who are also sufferers of specific conditions and ask them, with their medical knowledge, how willing they would be to take these experimental treatments. Not perfect but better than lining fat-cats’ pockets.

  • Sierra

    The pharmaceutical companies want to keep people sick, so they’ll buy more drugs. It’s not about making people better, it’s just about making money. Now many pharmaceutical companies aren’t even liable for the damage that they’re products cause.

    • I’cia( ❤ My Falcons)

      Exactly! It’s all about making money! I try my best to avoid meds and take the natural remedy route!

    • aussieshepherd

      An example is niacin. My cholesterol was getting high and my Doctor was thinking about putting me on one of those cholesterol-lowering meds. I started taking massive amounts of niacin (3 GRAMS a day, which is a ton), not for cholesterol, but for memory as my father died of Alzheimer’s. The next time I got labs done, my bad cholesterol was cut in half, my good cholesterol doubled and the ratio of good to bad was great. My doctor asked what I was doing differently so I told him about the niacin. He had heard it was good for that but “wasn’t sure it really worked.” It sure worked for me. As you said, it’s all about the $!!

    • Mike Van Orden

      I don’t know about wanting to keep them deliberately sick but no doubt causes of “disease” and maladies are not what is targeted, merely the symptoms are. And what occurs often are side effects which creates the need for other medications. I think this is a pretty complicated issue in which the pharma companies aren’t off the hook morally, but I wouldn’t say they deliberately inflict ailments upon people so they can make a medicine to combat it. I think as big pharma started rolling in the cash the medical community jumped in line as they saw profits sky rocket and they didn’t fully think through the monster they were creating while they killed off research in the area of preventative medicine.

    • Hillyard

      Not only that many refuse to provide drugs for dangerous ‘orphan’ diseases because there is too little demand and not enough profit.

    • That’s right! Feed yo Sheep with Kool-Aid! You know everything, so why do we waste our time with whatever, and not worship you?

      • Sierra

        Yes, please do. I do happen to know everything, and you are free to worship as you see fit. I’m glad you see it that way.

        • Well hurry up! Solve the world’s problems already! C’mon! We’re a century late.

  • Brp Goyo

    What if this article is part of the 80 percent? Boom! xD

    • Liege_Lord

      haha I knew someone was gonna say that. I know its “medical” studies but its funny to do a study on how unaccurate studies are… we need to study the studies which study the studies which study the studies…. etc.

      • Mark Gower

        A study within a study. That’s studception

        • Mike Van Orden

          it’s called meta-research. Research of the research.

  • Steve W

    82.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

    • Mike Van Orden

      the numbers and math aren’t wrong in statistics, it’s manipulating the input of the #’s a long with how rigorously you actually test for causation that makes stats suspect. A good/moral statistician will run the #’s so that causation is a high standard to reach. A good but immoral statistician can, however, make the stats look muddier or find causation where in fact it does not definitively exist. Stats aren’t made up, however.

  • Hillyard

    Of course beer is healthy. Taken in moderation of course.

  • How many butthurt people will bellow on here about eating Naturals? Oh wait, there’s an article on here about that. 😉