The Streetlight Effect

Rest Day Read (SR-59)

by David H. Freedman from Discover Magazine, July-August 2010

“Many, and possibly most, scientists spend their careers looking for answers where the light is better rather than where the truth is more likely to lie. They don’t always have much choice. It is often extremely difficult or even impossible to cleanly measure what is really important, so scientists instead cleanly measure what they can, hoping it turns out to be relevant. After all, we expect scientists to quantify their observations precisely. As Lord Kelvin put it more than a century ago, “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it.” There is just one little problem. While these surrogate measurements yield clean numbers, they frequently throw off the results, sometimes dramatically so. This “streetlight effect,” as I call it in my new book, Wrong (Little, Brown), turns up in every field of science, filling research journals with experiments and studies that directly contradict previously published work.”

“The results? We get heavily hyped drugs like Avastin, which shrank tumors without adding significant time to cancer patients’ lives (and increased the incidence of heart failure and blood clots to boot); Avandia, which lowered blood sugar in diabetics but raised the average risk of heart attack by 43 percent; torcetrapib, which raised both good cholesterol and death rates; and Flurizan, which reduced brain plaque but failed to slow the cognitive ravages of Alzheimer’s disease before trials were finally halted in 2008.”

This article was hard to read, hard to admit the truth behind it.  I can’t wait to read Freedman’s book, WRONG.  But it is true, science has gone a bit off course.  When we should be about truth, we have become driven by gain.  We have let the truth be molded by what we (or our sources of funding) want to prove rather than the facts. And ladies and gentlemen, that is a slippery slope we tread upon.  Dangerous and treacherous to all of us.

Being a scientist, I especially would like to put absolute faith is everything science produces.  But more and more, I am afraid we must go with the old adage “Don’t believe everything you hear”.  Ever heard that one?  Maybe from your parents, perhaps?  Be wary, dig deeper and search for the truth.

Note: If you are looking for some awesome, informative reading to have around your household, why not try a subscription to Discover Magazine?  (Non-compensated, non-celebrity endorsement)

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