Stand up for straight statisticsBMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d2163 (Published 06 April 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d2163
All rapid responses
Dr Black is likely to be very disappointed. Her quest to rid the
world of corrupt statistical data is doomed to failure.
While she is entitled to her innocent belief in the value of
statistics, there is little to support her claim that it produces anything
resembling "lovely, clean data." Take, for example, the large-scale
randomised controlled trial (RCT) on which so much of the practice of
modern medicine is based and which is widely accepted to be the most
reliable method for the investigation of the efficacy of new treatments.
Does it really produce "lovely, clean data?" Of course not. All it
delivers is a small difference in outcome between the treatment groups. We
cannot be sure what this paltry difference means; but, whatever it is, we
can be sure that it is of little value. 
Yet, even if the data were reliable and the inferences from them were
sound, it would not prevent the manipulation and distortion that regularly
appear in the medical literature and in promotional material from the
pharmaceutical companies, and that form the basis of policy decisions and
government programmes. It is an intrinsic feature of statistics-based
research - whether RCTs or epidemiological studies - that the data lend
themselves so readily to manipulation. And it is foolhardy to believe
that those with a vested interest in the findings of these studies will
not twist the data to achieve their own ends.
The problem addressed by Dr Black is a problem of statistics-based
research. Her solution still involves statistics and, as a result of that,
it cannot succeed.
1. Black ME. Stand up for straight statistics. BMJ 2011;342;d2163
2. Penston J. Stats.con - How we've been fooled by statistics-based
research in medicine. The London Press, November 2010.
Competing interests: No competing interests