Fake facts and alternative truths in medical research

4 Feb, 2018
Bjørn Hofman, Source: BMC Medical Ethics

Background: Fake news and alternative facts have become commonplace in these so-called “post-factual times.”
What about medical research – are scientific facts fake as well? Many recent disclosures have fueled the claim that
scientific facts are suspect and that science is in crisis. Scientists appear to engage in facting interests instead of
revealing interesting facts. This can be observed in terms of what has been called polarised research, where some
researchers continuously publish positive results while others publish negative results on the same issue – even when
based on the same data. In order to identify and address this challenge, the objective of this study is to investigate
how polarised research produce “polarised facts.” Mammography screening for breast cancer is applied as an example.
Main body: The main benefit with mammography screening is the reduced breast cancer mortality, while the main
harm is overdiagnosis and subsequent overtreatment. Accordingly, the Overdiagnosis to Mortality Reduction Ratio
(OMRR) is an estimate of the risk-benefit-ratio for mammography screening. As there are intense interests involved as
well as strong opinions in debates on mammography screening, one could expect polarisation in published results on
OMRR. A literature search identifies 8 studies publishing results for OMRR and reveals that OMRR varies 25-fold, from 0.4 to
10. Two experts in polarised research were asked to rank the attitudes of the corresponding authors to mammography
screening of the identified publications. The results show a strong correlation between the OMRR and the authors’
attitudes to screening (R = 0.9).
Conclusion: Mammography screening for breast cancer appears as an exemplary field of strongly polarised research. This
is but one example of how scientists’ strong professional interests can polarise research. Instead of revealing interesting
facts researchers may come to fact interests. In order to avoid this and sustain trust in science, researchers should disclose
professional and not only financial interests when submitting and publishing research.
Keywords: Conflict of interest, Polarized research, Mammography screening, Breast cancer, Overdiagnosis, Mortality

  • Bjørn HofmannE
BMC Medical Ethics BMC series – open, inclusive and trusted2018
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 4th, 2018 at 11:46 am and is filed under Literature.

Literature Literature archive

S Krishnaswamy, P Lambach, ML Giles 2019 HUMAN VACCINES & IMMUNOTHERAPEUTICS VOL. 15, NO. 4, 942–950
Editorial 2019 Lancet Adolescent Health Vol 3: 281
AHviid, JVinsløv Hansen, M Frisch,, et al 2019 Ann Intern Med 170(8):513-520.

Videos Video archive

VCP Research Fellow Emilie Karafillakis comments on the anti-vaccination movement, the role of social media and the importance of rebuilding trust. 

In this video Prof Larson explains what vaccine confidence is, the team’s work, and what needs to be done to restore vaccine confidence around the world.

As part of the LSHTM Vaccine Centre podcast series to celebrate World Immunization Week Prof Heidi Larson recorded an episode with about her work and the VCP.

Subscribe to our mailing list

Click here to go to our GDPR-compliant signup form.

The Vaccine Knowledge Project at the Oxford Vaccine Group