Intended for healthcare professionals


The pursuit of ignorance

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 15 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1446

Re: The pursuit of ignorance

The pursuit of ignorance

The problem is one of “evidence”. Evidence is a much promoted word for the purpose of gaining support for a particular purpose. Unfortunately the value of the evidence can be inflated beyond recognition by, for example, statistical techniques such as Hazard Ratios/ Odds ratios, which in themselves are useful for demonstrating statistical significance but are then used to inflate the actual value of the benefit found.

This was well described in a BBC programme “How do people or companies with vested interests spread ignorance and obfuscate knowledge?” Georgina Kenyon

Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour (Proctor)

Astroturfing is another example used by companies to confuse and influence public opinion and typically are funded by corporations and governmental entities to form opinions. A classic example of this practice was the actions of the tobacco companies in providing “evidence” against the charge of cancer causing.

More recently it has been used by pharmaceutical companies to promote the widespread use of drugs while the actual benefits for the individual are trivial. The number of pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington exceed the number of elected senators and representatives and one wonders what “evidence” they are promoting.

Evidence is only valid if the data on which it is based and the interpretation is available for thorough scrutiny. There are many examples in the medical press where this is just not the case. Some reports that come to mind are Starbridge’s report (Starbridge B JAMA, July 26, 2000—Vol 284, No. 4 )

Ioannidis JPA (2005) Why most published research fi ndings are false. PLoS Med 2(8): e124.

among others including the Poldermans affair leading to a claim that 800,000 died in Europe as a consequence of official advice - paper that was taken down “for review” but has never been seen again so the truth will never be known; no debate but the number remains but one is left with the impression of a cover-up by the medical establishment.

Competing interests: No competing interests

17 March 2016
Michael J. Hope CAWDERY
Retired veterinary researcher