Friday, 13 March 2009

Another example of bad science with serious real world consequences

Via Respectful Insolence, I came across this story: massive research fraud has been uncovered in the field of anaesthesiology. It appears that one Scott Reuben, MD, is accused of fabricating results in at least 21 studies he conducted in the field of multi-modal analgesia; this is discussed in more detail at Science Based Medicine. The studies are now in the process of being formally retracted by the journals that published them.

It's difficult to over-emphasise the seriousness of this. Recommendations about best practice for pain management have been made on the strength of these studies. It is now not clear that those recommendations are appropriate. Until further studies are done to sort this mess out, people are going to be denied the best possible standard of care. Bad evidence has consequences.

What is particularly galling about this case is that it was not uncovered through the scientific method. Peer review didn't uncover it, and neither did a failure to independently replicate Reuben's results. In fact, it was eventually uncovered because it was noticed that Reuben did not have approval to conduct research on human subjects for two abstracts he had submitted for presentation. The scientific community has nothing to be proud of here. Fair enough, it's largely impossible for peer review to spot fraud: there has to be a degree of trust that the data presented is not simply fabricated. But fraudulent research has entered the literature, and had recommendations based on it. Make no mistake about it, this is a massive failure. It's no good saying that the scientific method ensures that such fraud will eventually be discovered: it didn't ensure it in this case, and by now the damage is done. The science based medicine community needs to urgently consider how this sort of thing can be prevented in future.


Anonymous said...

Part of the scientific method is to replicate results, the failure to do so means the scientific method was not applied. The scientific method could have ensured that this fraud was found out sooner if people had bothered to replicate the results before applying the findings in a clinical context.
In fact I would argue that the biggest concern arising from this was the failure of the medical profession to seek independent verification of results before putting lives at risk by applying them.
This complacency is inexcusable.

Paul Wilson said...


Can't really disagree with anything you wrote there. The only thing is that I'm not convinced that we can separate the scientific method from the way scientific findings are applied in practice: part of science should be about what actually happens, rather than what we hope will happen.

Anonymous said...

I bet that some people did studies to replicate the findings, got non-significant results and then sat on the data as "unpublishable".