Richard G. Petty, MD

The Rigors of Science: Finding Research You Can Trust

"All that glisters is not gold; Often have you heard that told."

This famous quotation from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Scene 2, Act 7, is a suitable title for something that we need to discuss. I have been becoming more and more disturbed by the constant flow of advertisements and infomercials that attempt to buttress their claims by saying that "scientific studies have shown that…" When in reality the scientific support just isn’t there. How can such a thing happen?

The first thing is that reading scientific articles is a skill. Often when studies are being quoted, it is pretty obvious that some folk have only read the title or the abstract of the paper. Yet someone with experience of reading papers does not do that at all: they start with the sections of the paper describing the methodology. When I am looking at a research paper, whether it is on a new medicine, or on a study of intercessionary prayer, I will be armed with a pencil, notepad and calculator. Just because something has been published does not mean that it is true!

For more than five years I spent at least one day each week in some of the finest libraries in the world, trying to track down the original reports of odd or strange observations. I was doing this, not out of idle curiosity, but because I was determined to find out the truth behind many of the claims made in popular books and sometimes repeated in textbooks. What I found shocked me. Countless things repeated from one book or article to another had no basis. If you look hard enough you will find all sorts of reports that never stood the test of time.

In 1927 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the Austrian Neurologist and Psychiatrist Julius Wagner-Jauregg. The prize was awarded for his "treatment" of advanced cerebral syphilis by inoculating the patients with the organisms that cause malaria. It may be that the fever would have helped some of the symptoms, albeit transiently. But at what a cost! Over the years, good, hard working, compassionate health care providers around the world have done all sorts of things to patients that have turned out to do more harm than good.

Going back through my files, I have seen an astonishing number of reports in the media about scientific and medical breakthroughs that later turned out to be incorrect. That is okay: sometimes we advance by trial and error, but the trouble is that not everyone is aware that knowledge has advanced, and that yesterday’s ideas have been overtaken by new information. I was recently at a conference about a new form of treatment. A neurologist was explaining why it was safe and why certain side effects did not occur. The only trouble was that his explanation was twenty years out of date. He simply did not know that an old theory had been overturned by new research. He is a top-notch neurologist, but somehow the research had slipped in under his radar. It shows how difficult it is for even a professional to keep up with new information.

The problems of providing accurate information are being compounded in our Internet age, because of two issues. The first is premature reporting, and the second is the rapid promulgation of information, without checking. As an example of the perils of premature reporting, remember back to the fiasco during the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, when the constant desire of news programs to be first with the results, lead to some awful problems for the media.

There is an interesting example of the second problem. There is a beautiful quotation by Marianne Williamson, which begins with the words:

"We fear that we are inadequate, but our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us."

If you Google it, you will find several hundred websites saying that this quotation was used by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural presidential address in 1994. Except that he did not. His office has confirmed that he never used the quotation. Yet the story continues to be spread. There are countless other examples.

These twin problems are constantly cropping up in reports of clinical trials. I recently had the privilege of contributing a brief article about the painstaking steps involved in getting to the truth about a new treatment. You can find it at:

Taking single studies out of context, and not evaluating all the information in them, may sell a lot of supplements or books, but is just not fair to the public. It also makes it hard for us to trust information from the really high quality studies that are out there.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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