Cancer expert asks “Are we as a society prepared to pay attention to scientific evidence?”

It’s ironic that this now makes three consecutive entries on this blog that all relate to public misconceptions or misunderstanding of how science works.

• Yesterday I blogged about a science writer’s lament about how reader comments sometimes display an inability to accept evidence.

• Earlier today I posted a humorous piece from The Daily Show showing some more gaps between what science shows and what people want to believe.

• And today, Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society concludes a piece about prostate cancer screening recommendations with the question, “Are we as a society prepared to pay attention to scientific evidence?” Excerpts:

“Because doctors and patients believed that screening works — wasn’t it obvious that it would? — they opposed rigorous studies, called randomized trials, that assign half the patients to get screening while the other half goes unscreened.

Despite opposition from doctors and patients, the trials finally got done, and today the harms of screening are better proved than the benefits.

The phenomenon of so-called experts, who do not understand basic principles of screening, making exaggerated statements is not limited to prostate cancer. It also occurs in breast and lung cancer screening. Well-designed scientific study has clearly showed that these procedures save lives, but science has also demonstrated that the procedures have limitations and risks of harm.”

Read his entire post. Brawley also has a forthcoming book, “How We Do Harm,” that will undoubtedly touch on these themes in greater detail.

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Joshua Schneck

November 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Dr. Brawley is spot on regarding PSA testing. Which begs the question of how strong is the evidence for definitive treatment – whether surgery or radiation – for men with asymptomatic, PSA-detected, low-risk prostate cancer? That’s a question each patient must probe, consistent with his actual condition, before being talked into hasty definitive treatment.