13 April 2012

Perfecting pills and potions

“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion making ... the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses ... I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death.”[1]

J K Rowling's potions master, Professor Severus Snape, is talking of magic but his approach is in many ways more scientific (“there is little foolish wand waving here”, he warns) than muggle explanations for drug effects which were accepted professional consensus until quite recently in the scheme of things. In anything like the present day usage of the term, pharmacology is (give or take an argument or two over detail) a hundred and sixty five years old. For much of that short history, pharmacological data analysis was externally observational: the body was a black box, with the drug as input and detected effects as outputs. The current receptor based molecular approach, though it has its theoretical roots in the early twentieth century, only really dates from after the second world war. [more]

  1. Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone. 1997, London: Bloomsbury. 0747532699 (cased) 0747532745 (pbk.).


Julie Heyward said...

This is only tangentially related to your piece, but I'd be interested to know what you think of the work of John Ioannidis.

I read this article in The Atlantic last year and was totally depressed by it. Yet, in searching for the link for this comment, I find this rebuttal which sounds somewhat reassuring. However, I don't seem to have the stamina to sort throught the 114 comments to it and am hoping that you'll rescue me ...

Felix said...

I don't think I can rescue you (much as I wold love to, Rapunzel!) ... because my answer is that the truth only emerges through the clash of debate.

Though statisticians are usually professionally honest, I regard it as axiomatic that statistics are selectively misused and distorted to support agendas. Those agendas may be commercial, professional, vanity centred or any combination of those and/or other factors. Statistics are no different from any other argument in that respect.

Truth is, any given set of statistics is just one piece in a large jigsaw ... and every piece carries in large type the label which consumers like thee and me too often ignore: "caveat emptor".

I'd say that both the original Atlantic article and the Science based Medicine response are worth following up and, at the same time, to be treated with healthy scepticism.

I would, for instance, want to see Athina Tatsioni's study in its entirety before being completely confident of my opinion about it. Oh ... hang on ... just found it ... I'll read it and see! If you want to make up your own mind, it's here.