The Anatomy lesson by John Ioannidis: Reliable science

Last modified: May 29, 2017

by Coosje Veldkamp

This year, the Anatomische Les (‘Anatomy Lesson’) was given by the renowned Greek-American epidemiologist and internist John Ioannidis. In his lecture, entitled ‘Betrouwbare wetenschap’ (Reliable science), Ioannidis addressed both the accomplishments and the shortcomings of biomedical research.

Ioannidis argued that science is the best thing that has happened to humans, highlighting the major improvements that the biomedical sciences in particular have brought in our lives. According to Ioannidis, biomedical research is an ongoing effort, an unfinished work. Honoring the special venue of the lecture, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Ioannidis elegantly linked this to the unfinished works of the major classical composers. Would their works have been completed if they would have lived longer and healthier lives? Would current medicine have prevented or cured the diseases that killed these composers? What has improved in the biomedical sciences and medicine since their time? And what can we do better?

What we can do better

What we can do better, according to Ioannidis, is reducing and taking into consideration opportunities for human bias in science, and reducing unnecessary multiplicity. We can do this by using the highest standards in methods, analysis and reporting of results, and specifying them prior to the study. Currently researchers often work in isolation and experience pressure to obtain significant results. They conduct their studies with samples that are too small, selectively report hypotheses that are confirmed, and conduct post-hoc analyses, using lenient statistical criteria. Pre-registration and replication are rare, and data sharing is unpopular. In the current literature, almost all scientific articles report statistically significant findings, and that is simply unrealistic. In science, we need other incentives than obtaining statistical significance.
Ioannidis also points to other factors that threaten the biomedical sciences. To illustrate this, he reads a passage from Scylla and Charybdis from the Odyssey in beautiful Greek. While Scylla represents the areas for improvement in Biomedical Sciences on which we as researchers have to work, we must also fight Charybdis: private companies that cast doubt on the adverse effects and toxicity of their products, quacks, and science denialists such as climate skeptics, vaccine denialists, and religious fundamentalists.

Possitive message

The Anatomy Lesson ends with a positive message: biomedical research is extremely important and requires full societal support and ample funding. Its research must be credible and useful, and the characteristics that make research credible and useful are easy to identify and improve.

Coosje Veldkamp is a PhD-candidate at the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Tilburg, The Netherlands

Watch the Anatomy Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson by John Ioannidis is now available on YouTube.

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