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Fast Science: The Uncertainty Paradox

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” has been liberating in that is has given me permission to let my pessimistic nature out of the closet.

Well, it’s not exactly that I am pessimistic, but certainly I am not given over to brightness and cheer all the time. My poison is worry. Yes, I am a worrier, in case you had not noticed. So, imagine how satisfying it is for me to find new things to worry about. As if climate change were not enough, lately I started to worry about science.

No, my anxiety about how we do clinical science overall is not new; this blog is overrun with it. However, the new branch of that anxiety relates to something I have termed “fast science.” Like fast food it fills us up, but the calories are at best empty and at worst detrimental. What I mean is that science is a process more than it is a result, and this process cannot and should not be microwaved. Don’t believe me? Let me give you a couple of instances where slow science may be the answer to our woes.

1. Lies and damned lies

Remember this story in the Atlantic that rattled us with its incendiary message? Researcher John Ioannidis has been making headlines with his assertion that most, if not all, of what we know in medicine is in doubt, given how we do and publish research. And how we do and publish research has everything to do with the speed of “progress.” Academic careers are made with positive results, to sell news the media demand positive results, and to respond to this demand academic journals prefer only to publish positive results (this last phenomenon is referred to as “publication bias,” and is something Ben Goldacre rails against at length). A further manifestation of this fast science is that “no replicators need apply.” I am, of course, referring to an extension of the publications bias, whereby journals are not interested in publishing even a positive study that replicates a previous finding — this is simply not sexy. Thus, results have to be quick and positive to grab a share of our attention and sell academic prestige, journals and news.Continue reading…

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