Not even wrong
April 18th 2008, 13:04
You can prove the darnedest things with science. You can demonstrate that dangerous drugs are safe; you can even establish that vitamins and nutritional supplements can shorten your life, a sleight of hand that was performed this week. And the great thing is that, because it's done in the name of science, everyone believes you!
As you may have read (and because every newspaper in the western spiral arm of the Milky Way had it on their front page, you probably did), the highly-regarded Cochrane Collaboration concluded that not only would the antioxidants A, C and E do next to nothing to improve your health, they might also shorten it.
This had everyone scratching their head. It was a startling conclusion that went against everything we thought we knew, and was contrary to the conclusions reached by almost every other significant research paper written over the past 40 years.
So how did they do it? The Cochrane paper was a meta-analysis, which means it re-analysed all existing papers that passed certain criteria for inclusion. Usually the main criterion is 'good science' - the studies are well-controlled and reputable.
But things weren't quite so straight-forward with the Cochrane meta-study. The research team started out with 16,111 scientific papers, and they immediately discarded 14,910 of them. Why? Well, said the researchers, they included cancer studies, or they were duplicates, or because they were 'not relevant', although nobody defined what to the study was relevant. However, the researchers did include studies of precancerous lesions and skin cancer which were. . .cancer studies.
So, the researchers were left with 1,201 papers that covered 815 separate clinical trials. Of these, a further 747 were rejected because nobody died during the course of the study. After throwing out all the positive papers that demonstrated health-giving benefits of vitamins, the researchers were left with a small handful of just 68 that suggested vitamins didn't extend life, but might even shorten it.
Of course, the discarded 16,043 papers discovered the very reverse.
Some science is so bad that scientists have a disparaging phrase for it. They say it's not even wrong. Sadly, even 'not even wrong' papers get good coverage in the media, and at a time when the EU and others around the globe are deciding on safe upper limits of vitamins, and those we shouldn't be allowed to take at all.
It would be a tragedy if this paper becomes a major influence in their decision-making.