Fundamental flaws in (cancer) research

Watching a TED talk by Ben Goldacre recently, my attention was drawn to an excellent Nature article on fundamental flaws in cancer research. The Comment Raise standards for preclinical cancer research (subscription required), by Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis, discusses some systematic weaknesses in basic biomedical research and proposes some solutions that would resolve some of these problems.

Nature 483:531–533 (29 March 2012) doi:10.1038/483531a

Nature 483:531–533 (29 March 2012) doi:10.1038/483531a

As part of their work at the Amgen pharmaceutical company, the authors have tried to replicate the findings in 53 “landmark” papers reported to reveal important advances in understanding about the molecular biology of cancer. Despite their best efforts, including contacting the scientists responsible for the original studies, getting resources from them and, in some cases, visiting their labs to repeat the protocol there, Begley and Ellis only managed to successfully reproduce the published results in 6 (11%) of cases. We are not told which experiments were replicable, or perhaps more importantly which were not, since confidentiality agreements had been made with several of the original authors (a point that was made post hoc in a clarification statement). Continue reading

Science and Television: friend or foe?

I’m a big fan of both science and television and have blogged previously about their inter-relationship (e.g. Science on the telly and A new model for interaction of scientific research and TV?).  I was therefore very interest to hear Physicist and former pop star Prof Brian Cox delivering the 2010 Huw Wheldon lecture on the topic Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy (available on BBC iPlayer until December 8th).

As the presenter of the excellent Wonders of the Solar System, Cox is ideally positioned to examine the tensions between science and television which, he notes, is “the primary medium for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the non-specialist public” (01:25).

Brian Cox

Brian Cox is Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester

There are, Cox notes, incompatibilities between the goals of science and television; though he is keen to emphasise that these are “occasional” and that he does not subscribe to the model that there are serious deficiencies in TV’s coverage of science. For example, a practising scientist must never have an eye on the audience, which would de facto compromise the impartiality of the process (08:10). In contrast, television must have their viewers (and reviewers) in mind. Continue reading

Add something “sciencey” to improve your plausability

There are many reasons why I am grateful to have spent some of my summer reading Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science, including the fact that it brought to my attention a paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. The article is an account of experiments conducted by Deena Weisberg and colleagues at Yale University, and was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2008.

jcn2Recognising that neuroscience is an area of research that fascinates the public and where discoveries are frequently picked up by the general press, Weisberg et al generated four explanatory statements for each of 18 different psychological phenoma. In each case the four statements represented:

  • a good explanation without specific mention of neuroscience
  • the same good explanation with the addition of plausible, but logically irrelevant, neuroscientific details
  • a bad explanation without specific mention of neuroscience
  • the same bad explanation with the addition of the same plausible (but irrelevant) neuroscience as in the second example

Continue reading

Making the best of “Bad Science” (Review)

Harper Perennial edition (2009)

Harper Perennial edition (2009)

If you have not yet read Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. As readers of his regular Guardian column or his website will already know, Goldacre has embarked on a campaign to root out example of pseudoscience and shoddy science whereever they may be found.

All the usual villians are present – homeopaths, nutritionists, slack journalists, pharmaceutical companies and AIDS dissenters. Some are mentioned by name, but given their alleged predilection for litigation, and since I do not have the time, the money or the inclination to do battle with them in the courts, I shall not repeat their identities here!

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that Goldacre is merely on a crusade against high profile exponents of “bad science”. True, the author does sometimes betray a little too much glee as he places a bomb under the throne of a media “health expert” (in a way that I found disturbingly reminiscent of the Physiology lecturer, when I was a first year undergraduate, recalling his boyhood experiments on frogs). Nevertheless, Goldacre is keen to emphasise that his purpose is to “teach good science by examining the bad” (p165 in my copy), adding that “the aim of this book is that you should be future-proofed against new variants of bullshit” (p87). Continue reading

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