The Truth? Wears Off?

The Truth Wears Off | Wired Science |

From the article by John Lehrer:

I’ve got a new article in The New Yorker (subscription required) on a disturbing phenomenon that’s affecting the scientific process. It’s sometimes referred to as the decline effect, and it’s the tendency of scientific results (i.e., effect sizes) to shrink over time. Although the initial data might appear to be very robust – and it doesn’t matter if the data describes the therapeutic power of a drug or the strength of a biological observation or even a property of particle physics – it will often decay over time. Here is the opening of the story: On September 18, 2007, a few dozen neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and drug company executives gathered in a hotel conference room in Brussels to hear some startling news. It had to do with a class of drugs known as atypical or second-generation antipsy- chotics, which came on the market in the early nineties. The drugs, sold under brand names such as Abilify, Seroquel, and Zyprexa, had been tested on schizo- phrenics in several large clinical trials, all of which had demonstrated a dramatic decrease in the subjects’ psychiatric symptoms. As a result, second-generation antipsychotics had become one of the fastest-growing and most profitable pharmaceutical classes. By 2001, Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa was generating more revenue than Prozac. It remains the company’s top-selling drug.

But the data presented at the Brussels meeting made it clear that something strange was happening: the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to be steadily waning. A recent study showed an effect that was less than half of that documented in the first trials, in the early nineteen-nineties. Many re- searchers began to argue that the expen- sive pharmaceuticals weren’t any better than first-generation antipsychotics, which have been in use since the fifties. “In fact, sometimes they now look even worse,” John Davis, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me.

The entire article is accessible (at least at this time) as a pdf here:

The article at the New Yorker mentions a test done by physicists in the Nevada desert measuring deep boreholes that “found a two-and-a-half percent discrepancy between the theoretical predictions and the actual data.”

For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling because of what it exposes about the scientific process. If replication is what separates the rigor of science from the squishiness of pseudoscience, where do we put all these rigorously validated findings that can no longer be proved? Which results should we believe? Francis Bacon, the early-modern philosopher and pioneer of the scientific method, once declared that experiments were essential, because they allowed us to “put nature to the question.” But it appears that nature often gives us different answers.

In my opinion, it’s worth “experimentally verifying” the issue of the connection between faith and expectations and the results of all these rigorously controlled experiments, including the triple-blind studies that have shown a positive correlation, and apparently causal, between intercessory prayer and significantly higher complete and partial remission rates in gravely ill patients.

Maybe there is more to the strange observer effect in physics results than we think?

And there is something else. The Big-Media-fed reverence felt for the scientific priesthood, which is restricted to the self-supporting politically-approved, and requires allegiance to its dogmas and condemnation of heresies for such violations as skepticism of AGW, recognition of design engineering in biology, and so on.


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