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The Ongoing Problem with Medical Journals

We live in an age of sensationalism. Content is meaningless as long as you have a title with a hook. This trend of blasting “news sites” with scores of posts on issues that you “Wouldn’t Believe are True” has unfortunately permeated all sorts of information websites and turned them into glorified entertainment blogs. This trend does not hold anything sacred and has infected arguably one of the most important sources of information…Medical Journals.

As many people are aware of, the medical sector is no longer an altruistic organization that selfishly seeks the betterment for all mankind. It is a profit-oriented market. Hospitals, private emergency rooms, insurance companies, and most flagrantly pharmaceutical companies are all profit-driven organizations that seek to create as much capital as they can out of individuals with ailments. To make matters worse this profiteering has brought researchers themselves to their knees. Medical journals are wrought with known inaccuracies and deceptive misinformation within their published studies. Richard Smith of the British Medical Journal claims that there is little to no proper guidelines for what can and cannot be published and what’s worse is that authors rarely post accurate procedures of their experiments. They publish and push studies through that are likely to get the most hits from the public rather than the ones that will bring about the best medical changes.

The problem with the corrupt nature of the once gold standard of medical information is that this information  becomes the cornerstone of cutting edge medical practices, services, and products that are marketed for health reasons; yet inaccurate information can lead to both non-existent and negative health benefits. A great example of this is the recent debacle with Gluten.

Gluten, a protein found in starches, has recently been in the news for its non-detrimental effects to everyone that doesn’t have celiac disease. This came as a shock to thousands of cutting edge health nuts whom found that going “gluten free” improved everything from their acne to their sex life. Yet the author of the original study in 2011, Peter Gibson, himself said that the study that he had conducted was flawed, realizing just this past year of the scientific inaccuracies that had led him to the conclusion.

So how did this problem occur? How were millions of people hoodwinked into believing that not only was gluten bad for you but through nixing all starch products their lives would be better? Cue the information cascade. Medical Journals, the “gold standard” of medical information, are looked at as infallible by the public. As soon as the information was received, individuals had a decision to make. Decide to nix gluten out of their diet or continue eating it. They also had a signal. The high signal that they were given was that from the medical journal alluding the fact that it was bad. Based upon this signal, individuals decided to nix gluten. Now individuals had multiple sources of information, they had a friend whom went non-gluten, and they had the signal. This established an information cascade which found gluten to be bad for you and continually began to reinforce itself.

Now some may ask where were the people with low signals? Signals that said that Gluten wasn’t bad for you. Even though it wouldn’t have affected most of the individuals, it may have changed the decision of the original actors and thus prevented the incorrect information cascade. And here we have another issue with the sensationalist trend of medical journals. Negative studies do not garner as much attention as positive studies do. That is, papers that examine and debunk other experiments are less likely to be published than papers that bring a new fact to light. The reasoning behind why these negative studies are less likely to be published can also be explained through the information cascade. Studies that are new and unfettered by other studies will immediately establish an information cascade following its conclusions. Why? Because at that point, there is only one signal, only one source of private information. With no other signal, the research can guarantee a large audience of followers that have no other path to go on. They achieve a monopoly on the given subject. This opposes negative studies that can debunk other studies. These negative studies create a rift, they establish a second signal that may split the population’s decision or may not be effective at changing the current information cascade at all. So incentives to publish studies that may garner a small audience are often nixed to publish studies that will garner larger audiences. Sensationalism and profiteering are the rulers of information in the free world and humans’ tendency to establish information cascades are the electorate.

Sources:

http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/05/gluten_sensitivity_may_not_exist.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21224837

http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2013/09/24/richard-smith-medical-journals-a-colossal-problem-of-quality/

 

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