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Studies reveal that what studies reveal can be wrong

I just noticed an interesting article on disproven scientific studies that appeared recently in The Guardian. The good news is that, historically, scientific literature is relatively quick to accept challenges to classic medical fact; the bad news is that a whole lot of medical fact turns out to be wrong.

The article cites a 2005 study in which John Ioannidis, MD, now at Stanford, looked at the 49 most-cited studies published between 1990 and 2003 as well as following related studies. Ioannidis noticed that only half of these classic findings had been positively reproduced, and 16 percent had been flat-out contradicted by later studies. In another more recent study, researchers examined all 212 papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 and found that of the 51 papers dealing with existing research, 16 overturned previous papers' conclusions regarding that research.

It's nice to know there's room in The System for research that contradicts classic research. Still, these studies are somewhat humbling: It would be foolish to put our blind trust in even the most universally accepted scientific findings. The article sums this all up quite nicely:

This looks like a reasonably healthy state of affairs: there probably are true tales of dodgy peer reviewers delaying publication of findings they don't like, but overall, things are routinely proven to be wrong in academic journals. Equally, the other side of this coin is not to be neglected: we often turn out to be wrong, even with giant, classic papers. So it pays to be cautious with dramatic new findings; if you blink you might miss a refutation, and there's never an excuse to stop monitoring outcomes.

Previously: Value of disease biomarkers may be exaggerated, John Ioannidis, MD: Research’s researcher, The Atlantic profiles Stanford’s John Ioannidis, “one of the most influential scientists alive” and Expert on ‘study of studies’ to head Stanford Prevention Research Center

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