Up Front 03/07

It often amazes me just how much money we spend on research. I don’t mean the popular bugbear of money spent on finding out the obvious – sometimes the obvious has to be proven. However, an essay published in 2005 entitled ‘Why most published research findings are false’, written by Dr John Ioannidis from the University of Ioannina School of Medicine, in Greece, has become a cult classic in research terms. He argued that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims, and went on to try and prove that most claimed research findings are false. A follow up article, published recently in PLoS Medicine, an international medical journal, investigated the even more alarming question of our acceptance of incorrect research findings, and levels of what the authors call ‘acceptable regret’. “Obtaining absolute ‘truth’ in research,” say the authors, “is impossible, and so society has to decide when less-than-perfect results may become acceptable.” “Acceptable regret” is what is worrying. It seems increasingly clear that, as a society, we are easily manipulated to accept errors and injustice, including those that cause the deaths of thousands of people, because somebody solemnly uses the term ‘regrettable’ while intimating that the end result will in some way be ‘acceptable’.