We like to imagine that medicine is based on evidence and the results of fair testing and clinical trials. In reality, those tests and trials are often profoundly flawed. There is a cancer at the heart of evidence based medicine and it’s called publication bias. Research proving the effectiveness of a therapy is twice as likely to be published as a trial of the same therapy with negative results. This form of bias is pervasive and occurs in all fields of medicine. When half of the data within a study would be withheld this is called research misconduct and the paper would be retracted if it came to light, however when half of the studies get ‘misplaced’ no one bats an eye. There are several reasons why this happens, one of them is that positive studies are just ‘sexier’ and publisher prefer them over negative results. Much worse is the influence the pharmaceutical industry has on medical research, they have everything to gain by publishing (fake) positive results. In short publication bias, leads to fake therapies, preventable deaths and needless public spending.
Ben Goldacre studied medicine at Oxford and is an epidemiologist. He hass written two bestselling books about abuses in medical research, Bad Pharma and Bad Science. In this TED talk he elaborates on the problem of publication bias.