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Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Albert Einstein all made an appearance at the ARM, on an issue that is taking a few centuries to resolve.
Retired Devon consultant orthopaedic surgeon Richard Rawlins summoned their ghosts when he argued that selective non-publication of unflattering trial data was research misconduct, and that doctors involved in such conduct should have their fitness to practise assessed by the GMC.
The tendency to focus on ‘helpful’ results that support an existing belief (or commercial interest), and ignore or suppress those that contradict it seems an eternal flaw of human nature, and certainly pre-dates the pharmaceutical giants by several centuries.
He quoted Francis Bacon, widely regarded as the father of the modern scientific method, who wrote in 1620 that ‘the human intellect is more moved by affirmatives than negatives’.
It was how superstition could be explained, he said – the tendency to give weight to what supports your view, and ignore the contrary evidence, even though there was usually far more of it. An ‘evil’ practice, he said.
The chemist Robert Boyle wrote 40 years later that ‘many excellent notions or experiments’ were suppressed.
And Einstein said the right to academic freedom came with the duty ‘not to withhold a part of what is believed true’.
The support from the past was matched with similar eloquence from the future.
This particular future doctor was Belfast medical student David Carroll who spoke in a separate debate of his ‘evidence-based epiphany’ at the age of 19, a moment which turned to anger and disappointment when he learned that many drugs trial results were not published.
He said: ‘The next generation will look back on this issue and be astonished that we ever let it happen in the first place.
‘The best evidence we have estimates that half of all clinical trials have never been published; they have never been seen by doctors or patients. This has undoubtedly caused harm to patients.’
Mr Carroll said there should be a mandatory open register of trials, and that it should be compulsory that all registered clinical trial results were published, and available within a year of trial completion.
Doctors and students at the ARM overwhelmingly backed the calls for ensuring greater transparency.
Neil Hallows is BMA views and analysis editor
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