Don’t go quoting research to me…

unless you actually read it. And I don’t mean an article about it in the popular or the propaganda press. Those articles were clickbait even before the term came into existence. If it’s sensational and it’s new, it gets press. If it’s later debunked by half a dozen other researchers, it gets much less.

Remember cold fusion? (Fleischmann and Pons, 1989, Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry) A great scientific breakthrough, until it wasn’t.

We should all know the great autism/vaccine hoax. It was first proposed that autism was caused by the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine. (Wakefield, The Lancet, 1997 – later retracted). When that was debunked, it was proposed that it wasn’t the MMR vaccine but thimerosal in vaccines that caused autism.

While it is true that mercury (thimerosal is metabolized to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate) is toxic (mercury was used in the production of felt for hats -hence the term “mad as a hatter” and the character The Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), autism continued even after thimerosal was eliminated from many vaccines.

Then it was proposed that vaccines in general cause autism, and the rise in the autism diagnosis was posited to parallel the rise in mass vaccination in the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow that was proposed as proof. Conveniently left out of that argument is that the first treatment center for autism was established in 1953 and the first epidemiological study of autism was published in 1966 (The Foundations of Autism, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2014). The reason the diagnosis increased in the 50s and 60s is that it was accepted as a diagnosis and studied beginning at that time. (Also see Publichealth.org “Vaccine Myths Debunked”)

I could argue with equal fervor that autism was caused by the Cold War. I could construct a compelling argument that the childhood fears brought on by “duck and cover” drills and the fear of nuclear annihilation caused mass psychosis that we came to know as autism, but it would be a waste of my time and yours because, no matter how compelling, I just made it up. Correlation does not equal causation, and two things happening in similar times don’t have to have anything to do with each other.

So no, reading an article about an article, and one intended to sell ads, is not reading or understanding science.

And I don’t mean that if you read the abstract you know what you’re talking about. The British Medical Journal published “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials” (2003). The abstract indicates that no randomised [the article uses the British spelling] controlled trials were found. Their literature review found that “The perception that parachutes are a successful intervention is based largely on anecdotal evidence. Observational data have shown that their use is associated with morbidity and mortality, due to both failure of the intervention1,2 and iatrogenic complications.3 In addition, “natural history” studies of free fall indicate that failure to take or deploy a parachute does not inevitably result in an adverse outcome.4” [Look at all those citations! It must be credible!]

In plain English: we think parachutes work because we’ve heard they work, but in our literature review we found that some people who use parachutes die and some people who don’t use parachutes survive.

As a result, a randomized controlled trial was undertaken. In 2018, the same journal published “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” (Yeh, et al BMJ, 2018). [For some reason, these authors used the American spelling.] From the abstract:

Intervention: Jumping from an aircraft (airplane or helicopter) with a parachute versus an empty backpack (unblinded).

Main outcome measures: Composite of death or major traumatic injury (defined by an Injury Severity Score over 15) upon impact with the ground measured immediately after landing.

Results: Parachute use did not significantly reduce death or major injury (0% for parachute v 0% for control; P>0.9). This finding was consistent across multiple subgroups.

Conclusions: Parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention.” [Yeh, et al, 2018]

I could write a sensational article based on that abstract. Or I could read farther: “However, the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high altitude jumps.”

In case any doubt remains, here is a photo from the article (copyright 2018, BMJ)

The article isn’t merely a joke […though as a joke, it is great. I recommend the article to anyone who reads scientific literature on a regular basis. It uses all the lingo you’re accustomed to and includes statistical analysis of the findings. It analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the trial in apparent seriousness. If you like British humour, read it. Available at pubmed.org without a subscription. Search by title. I didn’t link to it, in order to make you do some work.]. It warns that: “When beliefs regarding the effectiveness of an intervention exist in the community, randomized trials might selectively enroll individuals with a lower perceived likelihood of benefit, thus diminishing the applicability of the results to clinical practice.”

The crux of the issue: “The PARACHUTE trial satirically highlights some of the limitations of randomized controlled trials. Nevertheless, we believe that such trials remain the gold standard for the evaluation of most new treatments. The PARACHUTE trial does suggest, however, that their accurate interpretation requires more than a cursory reading of the abstract. Rather, interpretation requires a complete and critical appraisal of the study.” (Yeh, et al, 2018) (Emphasis added)

Note: Any relationship between this posting and current COVID-19 hoax and conspiracy claims is purely intentional. Be careful out there!

Author: halffastcyclingclub

We are a group of friends who ride bikes. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow, all of us are half-fast. In 2018, one of us is riding coast to coast across the US. If we meet Sal Paradise, we'll let you know.

7 thoughts on “Don’t go quoting research to me…”

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