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The Half Life of Certainty



On September 18, 2007, a few dozen neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and drug-company executives gathered in a hotel conference room in Brussels to hear some startling news. It had to do with a class of drugs known as atypical or second-generation antipsychotics, which came on the market in the early nineties. The drugs, sold under brand names such as Abilify, Seroquel, and Zyprexa, had been tested on schizophrenics in several large clinical trials, all of which had demonstrated a dramatic decrease in the subjects’ psychiatric symptoms. As a result, second-generation antipsychotics had become one of the fastest-growing and most profitable pharmaceutical classes. By 2001, Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa was generating more revenue than Prozac. It remains the company’s top-selling drug.

But the data presented at the Brussels meeting made it clear that something strange was happening: the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to be steadily waning. A recent study showed an effect that was less than half of that documented in the first trials, in the early nineteen-nineties. Many researchers began to argue that the expensive pharmaceuticals weren’t any better than first-generation antipsychotics, which have been in use since the fifties. “In fact, sometimes they now look even worse,” John Davis, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me.


 The most likely explanation for the decline is an obvious one: regression to the mean. As the experiment is repeated, that is, an early statistical fluke gets cancelled out. The extrasensory powers of Schooler’s subjects didn’t decline—they were simply an illusion that vanished over time. And yet Schooler has noticed that many of the data sets that end up declining seem statistically solid—that is, they contain enough data that any regression to the mean shouldn’t be dramatic. “These are the results that pass all the tests,” he says. “The odds of them being random are typically quite remote, like one in a million. This means that the decline effect should almost never happen. But it happens all the time! Hell, it’s happened to me multiple times.”


For Simmons, the steep rise and slow fall of fluctuating asymmetry is a clear example of a scientific paradigm, one of those intellectual fads that both guide and constrain research: after a new paradigm is proposed, the peer-review process is tilted toward positive results. But then, after a few years, the academic incentives shift—the paradigm has become entrenched—so that the most notable results are now those that disprove the theory.

While publication bias almost certainly plays a role in the decline effect, it remains an incomplete explanation. For one thing, it fails to account for the initial prevalence of positive results among studies that never even get submitted to journals. It also fails to explain the experience of people like Schooler, who have been unable to replicate their initial data despite their best efforts. Richard Palmer, a biologist at the University of Alberta, who has studied the problems surrounding fluctuating asymmetry, suspects that an equally significant issue is the selective reporting of results—the data that scientists choose to document in the first place. Palmer’s most convincing evidence relies on a statistical tool known as a funnel graph. When a large number of studies have been done on a single subject, the data should follow a pattern: studies with a large sample size should all cluster around a common value—the true result—whereas those with a smaller sample size should exhibit a random scattering, since they’re subject to greater sampling error. This pattern gives the graph its name, since the distribution resembles a funnel.

The funnel graph visually captures the distortions of selective reporting. For instance, after Palmer plotted every study of fluctuating asymmetry, he noticed that the distribution of results with smaller sample sizes wasn’t random at all but instead skewed heavily toward positive results. Palmer has since documented a similar problem in several other contested subject areas. “Once I realized that selective reporting is everywhere in science, I got quite depressed,” Palmer told me. “As a researcher, you’re always aware that there might be some nonrandom patterns, but I had no idea how widespread it is.” In a recent review article, Palmer summarized the impact of selective reporting on his field: “We cannot escape the troubling conclusion that some—perhaps many—cherished generalities are at best exaggerated in their biological significance and at worst a collective illusion nurtured by strong a-priori beliefs often repeated.”

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