Sunday, January 30, 2011

The decline effect and the scientific method : The New Yorker

Terrific article in the New Yorker about how when trials for things like drugs are replicated they often lose their statistical power. Meaning, a drug (antipyschotics are the example) could look fantastic, life changing in trial patients, but in post approval studies that come later to replicate results, the drug often looks ordinary or ineffective.

The decline effect and the scientific method : The New Yorker:
"Such anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism. Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.) The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe."