Only a third

by Russ Roberts on July 21, 2005

in Health

Is this good news or bad news?

Study Finds One-third of Medical Studies are Wrong

Hitting .667 makes you the greatest hitter of all time.  But we’d hope for a slightly higher success rate in science.  From the article (ht: techcentralstation):

New research highlights a frustrating fact about science: What was good for you yesterday frequently will turn out to be not so great tomorrow.

The sobering conclusion came in a review of major studies published in three influential medical journals between 1990 and 2003, including 45 highly publicized studies that initially claimed a drug or other treatment worked.

Subsequent research contradicted results of seven studies — 16 percent — and reported weaker results for seven others, an additional 16 percent.

That means nearly one-third of the original results did not hold up, according to the report in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

If 1/3 of all peer-reviewed findings in the most prestigious journals are either flat-out wrong or overstated, what do we make of this article from last week from Reuters:

Unborn U.S. babies are soaking in a stew of chemicals, including mercury, gasoline byproducts and pesticides, according to a report released on Thursday.

Although the effects on the babies are not clear, the
survey prompted several members of Congress to press for
legislation that would strengthen controls on chemicals in the
environment.

The report by the Environmental Working Group is based on
tests of 10 samples of umbilical-cord blood taken by the American Red Cross.  They found an average of 287 contaminants
in the blood, including mercury, fire retardants, pesticides
and the Teflon chemical PFOA.

"These 10 newborn babies … were born polluted," said New
York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who spoke a news conference about
the findings on Thursday.

"If ever we had proof that our nation’s pollution laws
aren’t working, it’s reading the list of industrial chemicals
in the bodies of babies who have not yet lived outside the
womb," Slaughter, a Democrat, said.

There is no mention of how the ten (10!) babies were chosen.  Randomly? Were they the first ten that were examined or perhaps the worst ten?  Were their mothers smokers?  Where did they live?  How much of each of the 287 toxins were in the blood?

Maybe none of that matters.  Maybe one molecule of one chemical in one baby is one too many.  But the end of the article unintentionally hints at a different story line:

Slaughter had similar tests done on her own blood.

"The stunning results show chemicals daily pumping through
my vital organs that include PCBs that were banned decades ago
as well as chemicals like Teflon that are currently under
federal investigation," she said in remarks prepared for the
news conference.

"I have auto exhaust fumes, flame retardant chemicals, and
in all, some 271 harmful substances pulsing through my veins.
That’s hardly the picture of health I had hoped for, but I’ve
been living in an industrial society for over 70 years."

Poor Louise Slaughter.  Condemned to grow up in an industrial society for seven decades.  It’s a miracle she’s still alive.  Or maybe not.  Maybe one of the reasons that she’s still alive is precisely because she has lived in an industrial society for over 70 years.  Paradoxically, living in an industrial society extends your life span.  True, you get contaminated blood.  But evidently, Louise is not the exception.  Lifespans for all of us in industrial societies have been climbing over the last 70 years as all that awful stuff continues to pulse through our veins.  Either it’s not as bad for us as it sounds or maybe there are benefits of an industrial society that make it those poisons in our blood worth having.

Here’s a map and article on life expectancy around the world.  The bottom line:

As you can see from the map below, more developed regions of the world
generally have higher life expectancies than less developed regions.
The regional variation is quite dramatic.

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