Thomas Jefferson famously said “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls who live under tyranny”. It’s a good quote to start a book with and one which rings true in Dr Malcolm Kendrick’s new book, Doctoring Data. I thought The Great Cholesterol Con was a cracker but this time has taken his scalpel to the world of medical research and properly dissected it for our inspection.
Kendrick is by his own admission a sceptic on all things medical but sceptics can be a force for good in guiding us through the mire of health messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
Take just a few he mentions – Will sausages give you cancer? What should you avoid eating? Sugar, fat, salt or all three? Should you have a smear test? A mammogram? What about statins? The sheer volume of information and statistics is enough to bamboozle the more mathematically challenged among us.
Kendrick has ruthlessly dissected the statistics for us and shows how drug trials are hyped and data manipulated to make minute risk seem enormous. He explains succinctly the difference between absolute and relative risk. He sheds light on the difference between “observational” studies and randomised controlled trials where statistics actually mean something. He illustrates the importance of language when describing the results of clinical trials.
For example, loud warning bells should sound when a study claims that treatment X would save 50,000 lives a year. “In medical research we have to be a little more scientific” he explains. “A more pertinent question would be “How much longer does this intervention allow people to live?”
He debunks long held and deep rooted notions about subjects like screening which is seen as “a good thing” by asking what do we really know about the risks and benefits?
For example did you know that there has never been a randomized controlled study on the benefits of cervical cancer screening done anywhere-ever? So why does nobody challenge it? Kendrick does and argues that the public needs well balanced information rather than propaganda to make informed choices.
Of course in the world of medical research, those in positions of power do not take kindly to anyone who dares to question the established order. That does not stop Kendrick criticizing the pharmaceutical companies who have vested interests in ensuring their drug gets to market.
By the time you finish this book you could feel hard pressed to know who to trust. A good start has got to be sceptics like Kendrick who refuse to simply accept current dogma and go digging for the truth.