The Frontal Cortex

Epidemiology

Gary Taubes has a pretty damning takedown of modern epidemiology at the Times Magazine:

In the case of H.R.T. [Hormone Replacement Therapy], as with most issues of diet, lifestyle and disease, the hypotheses begin their transformation into public-health recommendations only after they’ve received the requisite support from a field of research known as epidemiology. This science evolved over the last 250 years to make sense of epidemics — hence the name — and infectious diseases. Since the 1950s, it has been used to identify, or at least to try to identify, the causes of the common chronic diseases that befall us, particularly heart disease and cancer. In the process, the perception of what epidemiologic research can legitimately accomplish — by the public, the press and perhaps by many epidemiologists themselves — may have run far ahead of the reality. The case of hormone-replacement therapy for post-menopausal women is just one of the cautionary tales in the annals of epidemiology. It’s a particularly glaring example of the difficulties of trying to establish reliable knowledge in any scientific field with research tools that themselves may be unreliable.

It’s the ancient confusion of correlation and causation. Of course, there’s no reason to think that epidemiology has a monopoly on scientific error. Are most published research findings really false?