I walked into the study last night, and caught my husband at it again. There he was, staring at the computer…watching a TED talk.
For those who don’t know, TED.com is a place to hear incredibly passionate experts from every field imaginable talk about everything from robots to art restoration to the history of General Tso’s chicken. Last night, my husband clicked on a talk by Ben Goldacre titled “Battling Bad Science” and the enthusiastic tone from a man talking a mile a minute about epidemiology caught my attention. He lays out in less than 15 minutes what anyone who writes, speaks or reads about health issues need to know, namely the different kinds of medical trials and their varying levels of rigor. But his conclusion, the last three minutes of the talk, is what really caught my attention.
Dr. Goldacre declares in rapid-fire dialogue that publication bias is the single greatest ethical dilemma in medicine today, a bold statement but one worth considering. He reports, for example, that half of all trial data on anti-depressants has been withheld, and negative data goes “missing in action” in all fields of medical research. How can health professionals, let alone the public, make difficult medical decisions if they do not have all the evidence to weigh in the balance?
Goldacre concludes, “I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” My question is: who is responsible for finding this “missing data,” all of the studies with negative or null results that go unpublished? Is it academia? Industry? Government? Do health communicators have a roll to play – either in educating the public about how to interpret research results, or in pushing for the publication of trials with negative results?
Have you ever thought about publication bias, and do you have any creative solutions to this problem?