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Genetic research

Genetic breakthrough findings often bogus, even when in medical journals

Thursday, April 01, 2010 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: genetic research, disease, health news

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(NaturalNews) Many scientific "breakthroughs" widely reported in the popular press are actually false, warn researchers Marcus Munafo of the University of Bristol and Jonathan Flint of Oxford University, writing in The Guardian.

"The social environment in which research occurs places scientists under pressure to perform, measured by the amount and quality of publications, and success in attracting research funding from government and charitable agencies," the scientists write.

This pressure encourages researchers to find some exciting conclusion to report, the authors write, even if that conclusion is probably false.

All scientific studies -- such as those claiming to find a "gene for" depression, schizophrenia, obesity, or any other condition -- contain a probability that their findings occurred simply by chance. Normally, this probability is less than 5 percent -- making the findings "statistically significant." Munafo and Flint note, however, that it is actually fairly easy to produce statistical significance.

"With enough data, and by running enough statistical tests, it is easy enough to find a significant effect," they write. "And with enough people trying, this effect might even be found more than once, giving the appearance of replication. The problem is that the results almost certainly won't be true."

This is why further studies, particularly meta-analyses combining the results of multiple studies, consistently disprove many headline-topping "breakthroughs." Yet these later studies rarely receive the same degree of media coverage as the originals. The authors note that although they conducted a meta-analysis finding no evidence for a connection between a certain gene variant and depression, screening for this "depression gene" is still available via the Internet.

More research being done does not necessarily mean more reliable findings, either.

"The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true," said genetic epidemiologist, John Ioannidis. "The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true."

Sources for this story include: www.guardian.co.uk.

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