WRONG: a book about evaluating evidence

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Science and business journalist David Freedman’s book, “Wrong:  Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not To Trust Them,” hits on many health/medical/science journalism themes – although that is not the main focus of his book, which also addresses finance wizards, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, high-powered consultants and more.

The book’s introduction leads with the story of  Dr. John Ioannidis – now at Stanford – who says:

“Amazingly, most medical treatment simply isn’t backed up by good, quantitative evidence.”

But Freedman also writes about:

  • How surrogate or proxy measurements or markers tend to lead researchers astray.

(We’ve written about this before on this site, under these headlines:

  • Tossing out inconvenient data, fabrication/falsification of medical research data (We’ve written about this as well.)
  • Problems with even the “gold standard” of randomized clinical trials (We’ve touched on one aspect of this issue.)
  • Medical journals’ publication bias for positive findings
    • “One group of studies analyzed by Kay Dickersin, the publication-bias expert at Johns Hopkins, and her folleagues found that for every negative study rejected by a journal, there was an average of about ten negative studies that weren’t submitted for publication.”

We hear a lot about “the wisdom of the crowds.”  He has a chapter, “The Idiocy of Crowds.”

Freedman describes as “the certainty principle” what it is that many of us want in advice:

“We’re heavily biased to advice that is simple, clear-cut, actionable, universal and palatable.”

That description seems to match much of the public dialogue on issues such as screening tests.  Journalists often do a poor job handling uncertainty in situations where the answers are not clear-cut – such as screening test discussions.  And the public dialogue suffers as a result.

I recommend “Wrong” and love some of the key quotes from it:

  • “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”  – H.L. Mencken
  • “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts.”  – Francis Bacon

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