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More study not always needed

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

It’s super easy — “barely an inconvenience” — to design and publish a study of bullshit medicine that will produce results ambiguous enough to justify shouting “more study needed.” Just a little statistical jiggery pokery, and presto! A crappy little clinical trial of something silly can become a “promising” part of a “growing body of evidence.”

How many studies like this are necessary to call it “growing”? Zero or one will do if you’re selling snake oil! Two if you’re the average uncritical science journalist hack. Three if you’re ethical/diligent but prone to wishful thinking.

But why stop there? These days there is an industry pumping out low quality papers like this (and that was true even before the disastrous innovation of “predatory journals”). Alternative medicine has mastered the art of dead-horse-beating with this kind of pseudoscience, fanning naïve hopes about treatments that should have been left in the dustbin of medical history decades ago.

Graphical rendering of a quote from Dr. Harriet Hall from an article titled “Acupuncture Revisited”: “More studies are not the answer. No matter how many studies showed negative results, they would not persuade true believers to give up their beliefs. There will always be ‘one more study’ to try, but there should be a common-sense point at which researchers can agree to stop and divert research time and funds to areas more likely to produce useful results.”

Dr. Harriet Hall passed away in January after a long career in medicine, and then many more years of educational writing and anti-quackery activism. I’ll be making a point of quoting her work for the rest of my career. Here’s my memorial post.

PainSci Member Login » Submit your email to unlock member content. If you can’t remember/access your registration email, please contact me. ~ Paul Ingraham, PainSci Publisher