By Dr. Mercola
Many facets of your daily life probably involve choices you make on the basis of scientific research. For instance, you may choose to eat certain foods, use certain medications, or exercise in a certain way because you've read reports suggesting that it's scientifically proven to benefit you in some way.
You probably expect that advice from your physician is also supported by sound science. Making such educated, informed decisions, especially in regard to your health, would be a wise strategy… except that so much scientific research simply cannot be trusted.
When you factor in unconscious researcher bias, publication bias, and outright fraud, modern science has gotten so bad that there is a less than 50 percent chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper will be true.1
Even that level of accuracy may be stretching it, however, if you consider the results of a recent study, which suggests that animal research carried out by men may be inherently flawed.
Male Researchers' Mere Presence Significantly Alters Animal Responses
Stress has a pain-relieving effect, and in the realm of pain research, it has long been an urban legend of sorts that the researchers' mere presence may be stressful to animals and thereby decrease pain in animal studies.
Researchers in the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University decided to test out the legend properly and got what they called a "huge shock."2
It turns out that male (but not female) researchers did have a significant stressful impact on the mice – exacting a stress response they said was comparable to a three-minute swim in cold water or a 15-minute restraint in a tube.
As a result, the pain response in the mice decreased by 36 percent in the presence of male-related stimuli.3 This included exposure to T-shirts worn by men, bedding material from unfamiliar male mammals, or compounds secreted by a man's underarm region. The researchers concluded:
"Male-related stimuli induced a robust physiological stress response that results in stress-induced analgesia [pain relief]."
While those involved in the research tried to give it a positive spin, saying they hoped it would solve some mysteries (such as why one researcher may get an entirely different study result than another), what it really highlights is the inherent inaccuracies and design flaws of laboratory research and animal research, in particular.
This reminds me of a reality TV show that I recently shot that will air in a few months. One of the actors was a capuchin monkey, and his trainer told me that he would consistently react quite stressed around menstruating women.
A medication that appears to be relieving pain in mice, for instance, may actually be "working" due to the stress-induced pain relief that occurs when mice are exposed to strange male researchers, not because of the drug at all.
The study calls into question not only animal research and pain research conducted by males, but also virtually every other laboratory study. There are certainly other factors that are skewing results because laboratory research simply cannot always accurately replicate real life. While research in general is good in theory, it doesn't translate easily into reality.
75 Percent of Published Preclinical Drug Studies Turn Out To Be Wrong
Preclinical trials are often published as "landmark" studies in reputable journals, and often form the basis for continuing research, especially in the development of new drugs, including cancer drugs.
Upon further review, however, the majority of preclinical research cannot be validated, wasting resources and at times exposing study participants to unnecessary risks. As reported in the journal Nature:4
"The scientific community assumes that the claims in a preclinical study can be taken at face value — that although there might be some errors in detail, the main message of the paper can be relied on and the data will, for the most part, stand the test of time. Unfortunately, this is not always the case."
For instance, when Biotech firm Amgen tried to confirm published findings before pursuing a new line of cancer research, they found that only six of 53 papers were confirmed.5 That's a success rate of only 11 percent, and these 53 papers had previously been deemed "landmark" studies that were considered important and valuable for the future of cancer treatments.
Drug company Bayer conducted a similar study and found that only 25 percent of published preclinical studies could be validated as true, which means 75 percent could not.6 The majority of the papers they analyzed (70 percent) were on the topic of cancer, showing just how far off the mark many cancer studies actually are. As the Nature report continued, oftentimes research continues on even though it's based on a completely faulty premise:7
"Some non-reproducible preclinical papers had spawned an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis.
More troubling, some of the research has triggered a series of clinical studies — suggesting that many patients had subjected themselves to a trial of a regimen or agent that probably wouldn't work… the inability of industry and clinical trials to validate results from the majority of publications on potential therapeutic targets suggests a general, systemic problem."
Publication Bias Is Rampant in Medical Research
I am a firm believer in the scientific method, provided it's applied appropriately. And that's the key issue here. In order to qualify in the first place, the research must be unbiased, unprejudiced, and free from any significant conflicts of interest. Sadly, this is simply not the case with most of modern medicine — especially not when it comes to drug research. It is clearly the exception and not the rule. In the talk above, Ben Goldacre offers a number of examples of publication bias, which is pervasive across all fields of medicine. Bias can take a few different forms, such as:
- Positive results are published while negative ones are not (i.e. publication bias)
- Retractions are frequently not published, which would alert prescribers, researchers, and academia that a study has been retracted due to fraud or other wrongdoing and cannot typically be relied upon
- The source of funding predictably affects the outcome of the trial
- Astonishingly, half of all clinical trials ever completed on the medical treatments currently in use have never been published in the medical literature. Trials with positive results for the test treatment are about twice as likely to be published, and this applies to both academic research and industry studies
- In 2010, three researchers from Harvard and Toronto identified all the published trials for five major classes of drugs, and then measured two key features: were they positive and were they funded by industry? Out of a total of 500 trials, 85 percent of the industry-funded studies were positive, compared to 50 percent of the government-funded trials
- In 2007, researchers identified all published trials of cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins. A total of 192 trials were found in which either two statins were compared to each other, or a statin was compared against a different kind of treatment. Industry-funded studies were 20 times more likely to favor the test drug, compared to those with independent funding
- According to a 2011 study in the Journal of Medical Ethics, nearly 32 percent of retracted papers were not noted as having been retracted by the journal in question, leaving the readers completely in the dark about the inaccuracies in those studies8
95 Percent of 'Expert' Journal Reviewers Are Paid by the Drug Industry
Many so-called "experts" are very much on the drug industry's payroll -- but they masquerade as independent medical experts or even state officials during their "day jobs." It is, by the way, 100 percent legal for drug companies to pay medical professionals to promote their products. The drug industry also often pays the expert medical reviewers who evaluate medications or medical devices for the journals. As reported by The American Scholar:9
"Today, medical-journal editors estimate that 95 percent of the academic-medicine specialists who assess patented treatments have financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies, and even the prestigious NEJM gave up its search for objective reviewers in June 1992, announcing that it could find no reviewers that did not accept industry funds."
The conflict of interest within this practice is obvious, which is why the drug industry often keeps quiet on their actual payments, as do the medical professionals involved. Although many medical, educational, and research institutions require faculty members to disclose such potential conflicts of interest, many do not actively monitor employees' activities. Financial disclosures are also added into medical journals, but the reader will only learn which company may have paid an expert author, not how much or what other ties to industry they may have.
Unfortunately, even if you scour the medical literature to determine what the consensus is on any given medical topic, what you'll find is an overwhelming preponderance of data in favor of the drug approach that in no way, shape, or form reflects the reality of the scientific investigation that went into that specific drug. And when you add in the additional research problems, like the way a laboratory setting or male researcher may be artificially skewing results, finding scientific data that you can actually rely on may be on par with finding a needle in a haystack.
How to Find Information You Can Trust in an Era of Bias, Conflict of Interest, and Confusion
So how can you determine if the results of the next big study can actually be trusted? In many cases you can't, and I would be wary of trusting any single study, whether it's published in a respectable journal or not. Scientific results that have been repeatedly verified over time tend to be more reliable, but even then always consider the source information, including who carried out, funded, and published the information.
In order to determine the best course of action in any situation, you've got to use all the resources available to you, including your own common sense and reason, true expert advice, and the experience of those you trust. Ultimately, you are responsible for your and your family's health, so be sure you feel completely comfortable with any related decisions you make. If you're facing a health challenge, choose healthcare practitioners who really understand health at a foundational level and have extensive experience helping others (and don't be afraid to ask for references and seek corroboration).
Of course, I always advise taking control of your health, which you can easily do by reviewing my comprehensive nutrition plan that summarizes my 30 years of clinical experience and treating 25,000 patients. I put this together so you can stay well and avoid having to rely on information that gives the perception of science when it is actually too heavily flawed or manipulated to benefit your health.