06 September 2007

Another one from across the pond ...

OK, so two posts in a day from the same paper after nearly a month of radio silence. My apologies. With that said, on to the goods ...

From a Guardian column called "Bad Science" (which I encourage all to peek at), an article called "Examine the data, not the author." This, in a way, piggybacks off of an earlier post about applying the same ethics of the media to evaluating scientific literature. Taking it one step further, Goldacre examines the troubling reality of ad hominem attacks tainting reviews of scientific writings that should be based on the data, not necessarily the author.

The article was published in late-June of this year, days before a smoking ban was put into effect somewhere across the pond. A preliminary study published by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill in 1950 looked at the risk factors of smoking and lung disease, findings that were confirmed four years later by the British Doctors Study.

So, what's the big deal? Here's the kicker ... Goldacre writes:

"You wouldn't know it, but the Nazis beat [Doll and Hill] to it. The Germans had identified a rise in lung cancer as early as the 1920s, but they had suggested - quite reasonably - that it might be related to exposure to poison gas in the great war. In the UK, Doll and Bradford Hill were wondering if it might be related to tarmac, or petrol. Then, during the 1930s, identifying toxic threats in the environment became an important feature of the Nazi project to build a master race through "racial hygiene".

In 1943 two researchers, Schairer and Schöniger, published their own case-control study in the journal Zeitschuft für Krebsforschung, demonstrating a relationship between smoking and lung cancer almost a decade before any researchers elsewhere. It wasn't mentioned in the classic Doll and Bradford Hill paper of 1950, and if you check in the Science Citation Index, the paper was referred to only four times in the 1960s, once in the 1970s, and then not again until 1988. In fact, it was forgotten."

Now, I'm not saying that not citing the 1943 findings is altogether wrong, and neither is Goldacre, necessarily. It was a grim time - to put it mildly, despite the large swath of doctors conducting research such as Schairer and Schöniger. Just an interesting data point in examining scientific literature, whether for purposes of the media or otherwise.

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