Scientific papers that appear in peer-reviewed journals are all carefully argued and documented with relevant citations with an objective discussion of the data. Aren’t they? Less and less so apparently. An international congress in Amsterdam pointed out the flaws that have crept into biomedical publications. Gambrill and Reiman of U Cal, Berkely have just published a study in which reviewers reviewed some papers twice. The first time was done as they would normally, but then they were given a “propaganda index” and asked to review them again.

The results were staggering. They noticed lots of phrases such as “everyone knows” or “it is generally agreed” in place of real data, but also a tendency to medicalize problems, so that common life-problems were presented as illnesses with them being underdiagnosed and undertreated.

So when you and I devour these pages, we believe weasel words such as “common” and start to feel the woozle effect. We are usually starting to worry about large frightening woozles and not smaller things like wizzles and end up in a Winnie the Pooh-like state with no Christopher Robin to point out reality.

An egregious example quoted by Gembrill and Rieman (1) particularly caught my eye: “Generalized social anxiety disorder is a chronic and insidious psychiatric disorder that first received widespread attention during the 1980s. Social anxiety disorder has an early onset, typically between 14 and 16 years of age, and subsequently follows a chronic course that persists well into adulthood. Spontaneous recovery is possible, but it occurs gradually and only in about half of all sufferers.” That was scary enough to set me googling frantically.  At one time or another most of us would be considered candidates for treatment by the enthusiasts as we get nervous about going on a new date or giving a public speech.

That is just being normal though. Few of us are so shy that we lock ourselves away. I was picturing what would happen if the next time we feel embarrassed about making a mistake in public, we all rush of for a successful course of treatment, would we all turn into a version of Alexander the Great and march out to conquer the world? But it wouldn’t happen. Christopher Robin pointed out there aren’t enough psychiatrist’s couches to go round.

  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0019516#s4

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