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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Researchers Who Cried Wolf.

In order to prove causation, you need to run an experiment. If you do not manipulate the groups yourselves, you cannot, by definition, prove anything.

This is the reason why, for example, cigarettes have never been proven to cause cancer. You would have to force a group of people to smoke and compare their cancer rates to your control. Since this would be considered unethical since everyone assumes causation anyway, no such study has ever been done.

Strong links have been demonstrated again and again. The evidence is heavy enough that most people realize it's a good idea to stay away from them. But unless you can manipulate the groups yourself, you cannot eliminate other factors, and you cannot say that the cancer is because of the cigarettes. Basic research 101.

Apparently, the researchers at Roswell Park Cancer Institute were able to finish medical school while never having taken a basic research methods or statistics class. In this story over at WBEN, they cite an 8% drop in heart attack rates since 1993, and conclude it must be because of restrictions placed on smoking since then.

This would be nice if they actually gave any evidence of this whatsoever. It is a classic fallacy to assume that since 2 things happened at the same time they must be related.

Was the smoking ban the only health related item to occur in the last 14 years? Was there no research or awareness of cholesterol or nutrition? Was there no research on any other method of preventing heart attacks?

No! Obviously, it must be the smoking.

Wait a minute! I left Middle School in 1993. Was that the cause? The World Wide Web was born in 1993! Was that the cause? 1993 was the last time Montreal won the Stanley Cup! Was that the cause?

If the researchers can be so sloppy with the basics when it fits their worldview, how can we expect them to be competent with more complex items? Assumed causation makes frauds like Erin Brokovitch rich while her clients received squat. Assumed causation made charlatans like Rachel Carson into environmental heroes while millions died in her wake.

Correlation cannot prove causation. Simultaneous occurrences do not show correlation. What we have in this story is speculation masquerading as scientific discovery.

The doctors at Roswell Park should know better. If they have evidence that the drop in heart attacks was in any way related to smoking restrictions, they should come out with it. If they're simply going to make assumptions based on anything that fits their belief, they have no business in research. Or, they could go work for the UN which is famous for performing scientific studies that say one thing and then claiming they said the exact opposite.

All too often are people willing to make public policy choices based on the shabbiest evidence. With this many frauds being touted as truth, is it any wonder that people question every supposed danger that comes down the pike? Every false panic weakens the effect of real danger warnings. If you've got evidence, show it. If you're so scared that you need to vilify anyone who questions your work, then just TFSU and go away.

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