Warning: Unscientific Media Reports!

The Experimental HIV Vaccine

THIV vaccine bottlehe Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, two of the most puissant media outlets, informed us of the new experimental HIV Vaccine that inflamed the hopes of many.

“An experimental vaccine regimen has shown a modest ability to protect people exposed to the HIV virus, the first time an investigational HIV vaccine has been shown to have this effect. The results from the trial, which involved more than 16,000 adult participants in Thailand, indicated that the vaccine regimen lowered the rate of contracting HIV by 31% compared with those taking a placebo, according to the U.S. National Institute of Health, which helped fund the study” (Gautam Naik, WSJ).

Out of the 8,198 people who received a placebo drug, 74 became infected with HIV.
Out of the other 8,198 people who received the real vaccine, 51 got affected.

The numbers might not be impressive or compelling, but the difference suggests a statistical difference of 31%.
This really is a “piece of good news” and gives hope in the battle against HIV. Yet, why is it that the press does not cite the actual scientific article? I find this deeply flawed. The scientific method relies on methodological and well documented studies in a strictly controlled environment. A scientific article has to be peer reviewed and approved in order to be published. Evidence for none of this was provided in either of the newspapers. This makes me wonder if the study has been peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal. It makes me question the authenticity of the results and the validity and reliability of the whole experiment.

Pills overloadIt is worth acknowledging the limitations that researchers face when attempting to experiment with people. When people’s lives are being affected, we cannot really apply the scientific method and conduct a true empirical experiment. There is a moral code that scientists ought to follow. We cannot divide the participants in two groups and infect one of them with HIV in order to test the vaccine. In this sense, it is impossible to have completely manipulated experimental setting. Still, scientists are trying to do the best they can and control the conditions of the experiment as much as possible. This is not the subject of my concerns. My concerns are that such experiments have a lot of limitations and possible alternative explanations that might explain the observed results. An experiment of this sort does not, by any means, imply a cause and effect relationship. My fear is that such data can be simply be interpreted the wrong way. If a pharmaceutical company sees opportunity for profit and starts to sell such vaccine, typing the warnings in small font, hidden in a corner, people might be in danger. A single wrong message from the powerful media empire can convince many that a successful vaccine has been found and scientists have the results to prove it. Yet, no one is quoting the scientific study.

In this particular case, the statistically significant results can be explained by a number of unmentioned reasons. Possibly, the participants, who took the experimental vaccine did not have as many (or any) sexual relationships. Perhaps, the people who had the placebo had unprotected sex with people who were infected, whereas most participants in the other group did not. These are only a few examples of alternative explanations for the results. However, we cannot know for sure if researchers have considered these, because the media is not providing the scientific information. Unsubstantiated by the scientific facts, such reports and statements could be very equivocal or even misleading.

Handshake trust me

Commercials tell us: “Ask your doctor about … Cymbalta, Ambien, Lunesta… Ask your doctor it it’s right for your”. The easiest thing for your doctor would be to give you the prescription you are looking for. That is probably why we are on the way of becoming an overmedicated nation, if we are not one already.

I encourage each and every one of you to be more skeptical. Ask the right questions and demand an answer. Beware the small font warnings hidden in the bottom. Whenever someone tells you a ‘fact’ and makes a promise, ask him/her to state her source. Know what is in the product that you are consuming, from the prescription drugs you’re taking, to the dinner you’re having.

1 comment for “Warning: Unscientific Media Reports!

  1. Ace
    September 29, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Part of the explanation is that the WSJ is a financial publication (arguably “THE” financial publication). As such, it caters to investors and traders and provides investigative reporting, not to be confused with scientific research.

    If you are an investor and wait for the official scientific publication to make a move on a stock, you’ll be preempted by everybody else who read about it early on and made an educated guess on the outcome based on the available information at the time.

    As long as there is full disclosure of all available information at the time of publication it is not out of “the norm”. What would be though, is if bits and pieces are left out on purpose to intentionally sell a [biased and incorrect] point of view. E.g. if this article left out the fact that the official data will be released in a month at an AIDS conference in Paris and therefore implied that these are the final results.

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