Every week we hear headlines about another “medical breakthrough” whether it be for cancer, the common cold or hangnails. But then a funny thing happens – we don’t hear about these great breakthroughs anymore. Our lives go on and so do the diseases. What happens to these amazing discoveries that would save us from suffering, extend our lives and make us healthy, wealthy, wise and give us better singing voices (OK, at least healthy)?
These “medical breakthroughs” are fake news (to coin a phrase) but they sell. Many of these so-called “breakthroughs” are produced by professional advertising agencies who give it to the media and they just run with it. After all, it does sell. Who doesn’t hope that they (whoever they are) will finally cure (fill in the blank)? We read all about it.
No one remembers the stories that have disappeared. We won’t ever read or hear, “News flash, remember that exciting breast cancer cure from last month? Well, never mind.” Or at best it’ll be buried on page 39 near the obituaries (where it would belong).
What we need is for media reporters to perform an unnatural act: report on past medical breakthroughs. Recently some researchers did just that and did follow-ups of the so-called cures.
What did they find? The majority of the medical breakthroughs were found to be just so much hot air. They couldn’t be replicated by other scientists. (1)
In an interview, lead author, Dumas-Mallet advises: “When a study is an initial study, even if it’s very exciting and amazing … it still needs to be confirmed.” (2)
This seems like a good time to remember Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum, “Trust, but verify.”
- Dumas-Mallet E, Smith A, Boraud T, Gonon F. Poor replication validity of biomedical association studies reported by newspapers. PLOS One. February 21, 2017.
- Harris R. Reports of medical breakthroughs don’t prove out. Health News from NPR. March 6, 2017.