Flashback 1995: Epidemiology faces its limits

“With epidemiology you can tell a little thing from a big thing. What’s very hard to do is to tell a little thing from nothing at all”…journals today are full of studies suggesting that a little risk is not nothing at all. The findings are often touted in press releases by the journals that publish them or by the researchers’ institutions, and newspapers and other media often report the claims uncritically…And so the anxiety pendulum swings at an ever more dizzying rate. “We are fast becoming a nuisance to society,” says [Dimitrios] Trichopoulos. “People don’t take us seriously anymore, and when they do take us seriously, we may unintentionally do more harm than good.” As a solution, epidemiologists interviewed by Science could suggest only that the press become more skeptical of epidemiologic findings, that epidemiologists become more skeptical about their own findings–or both.”

From, Gary Taubes, Epidemiology Faces Its Limits. Science. 269(5221):164-169. July 14, 1995. (sorry subscribers only, but here is decent pdf)

Rarely does a journal article have me hanging on every word. On occasion they do. This 1995 article is one to get excited about. I suspect the field of personal genomics has a lot to learn from this article, especially as it relates sober-faced communication of research findings. The personal genome enthusiasts who are interested in drinking from the firehose of new genomic associations would do well to take the advice for vigilant skepticism of the newest findings. But skepticism alone seems like a rather weak antidote, new tools are definitely needed for organizing a publicly available scoreboard for genomic associations.

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