Ben Goldacre has once again produced some excellent writing on scientific data — he has written an article on data analysis and deworming trials, and it’s both interesting and important. I’ll be using it in my classes, because I do try to hammer home to my students the importance of an appropriate understanding of statistics.
The main point, though, is that science has a problem. In a discipline dependent on the free exchange of information, huge amounts of data are hidden away and locked up as ‘proprietary information’, and all that gets published are basically synopses and interpretations.
Two years ago I published a book on problems in medicine. Front and center in this howl was “publication bias,” the problem of clinical trial results being routinely and legally withheld from doctors, researchers, and patients. The best available evidence — from dozens of studies chasing results for completed trials — shows that around half of all clinical trials fail to report their results. The same is true of industry trials, and academic trials. What’s more, trials with positive results are about twice as likely to post results, so we see a biased half of the literature.
This is a cancer at the core of evidence-based medicine. When half the evidence is withheld, doctors and patients cannot make informed decisions about which treatment is best. When I wrote about this, various people from the pharmaceutical industry cropped up to claim that the problem was all in the past. So I befriended some campaigners, we assembled a group of senior academics, and started the AllTrials.net campaign with one clear message: “All trials must be registered, with their full methods and results reported.”
How else can results be confirmed and replicated?