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Fresh wind blowing through psychological research

Blog entry posted by Simon, Oct 30, 2012.

Could findings about psychological causes of CFS be overstated or even wrong?

Seven years ago, John Ioannidis detonated a small bomb under the Life Sciences with his paper “Why most published research findings are False”. He made the case that widespread failings such as small sample sizes and flawed data analysis mean that most positive research findings are probably wrong. Judging by commentaries and articles in top journals such as Nature, many scientists broadly agree: science has a serious problem.

Wind-blown.jpg

Now Ioannidis (pronounced yo-NEE-dees) has taken aim at psychological research. An important new paper has just shown that the claimed relationship between Type D personality and cardiac deaths association is “overstated and most likely false”. Ioannidis argues that the flaws in the original evidence linking Type D personality to cardiac deaths are probably typical of psychological research:

That sounds to me like another bomb going off.

Problems with psychological research
Ioannidis highlights problems he’s identified before in research, such as small samples and flawed data analysis. Too often researchers keep analysing the data in different ways until finally a positive finding emerges - an approach that has been described as ’torturing the data until it tells you what you want to hear’.

However, Ioannidis also thinks another major problem is too much group-think in the psychological sciences. Consequently, any replications of an original study tend to lack the necessary independence for meaningful confirmation of findings.
There is another way that such group-think could lower standards: new papers that fit with the prevailing group-think don’t get properly scrutinised by reviewers or challenged once published. Ioannidis didn’t mention this specifically but it would certainly explain a lot of flaky papers I’ve read :).

What's this got to do with CFS?
If Ioannidis is right, it could have profound implications for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Here, many studies have reported associations with psychological factors, often arguing that such factors play a causal role in CFS. For example, studies have found psychological ill-health and an 'inappropriate' boom-and-bust response to illness are risk factors for developing CFS. Associations between psychological factors and 'Functional’ illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Disease have been found many times too.

However, one of the most compelling examples of the power of psychological factors was the link shown between Type D personality and subsequent cardiac death. Unlike other outcome measures, cardiac death is not prone to self-report bias or other similar problems of measurement and interpretation. Links between personality and an unambiguous outcome like death provided a dream example connecting psychology to physical health. But it was this association between Type D personality and cardiac death that psychology Professor James Coyne has just meticulously unpicked, sparking Ioannidis’s broadside.

A new era of healthy scepticism?
What I find striking is that these papers by Coyne and Ioannidis were published by the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. This journal has probably published more articles than any other journal claiming that psychological factors are associated with, or cause, CFS. Perhaps this marks the start of a new era of more rigorous—even healthily sceptical—evaluation of claims that psychological factors lead to illnesses such as CFS.
MeSci, aimossy, Firestormm and 3 others like this.
Simon

About the Author

Simon McGrath has been ill for too long.
  1. Simon
    @urban travels
    Sorry, missed the key link out of the article and then missed your comment pointing this out. Corrected now - thanks.
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.09.014
  2. Dolphin
    ----
    An important new paper http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999%2812%2900265-6/abstract has just shown that the claimed relationship between Type D personality and cardiac deaths association is “overstated and most likely false”.
    ----
    I just came across something else Coyne wrote that I previously highlighted (contains link to the free text)

    ------
    Are most positive findings in health psychology false.... or at least somewhat exaggerated?

    James C. Coyne*1, 2

    http://forums.phoenixrising.me/index.php?threads/are-most-positive-findings-in-health-psychology-false-or-at-least-somewhat-exaggerated-2009.19120
    ------
  3. Simon
    @Kelly
    “Powerful people tend to hang on to the opinions that made them powerful even if there is no longer sufficient evidence to support their views..”

    Good point, and agree with you about human nature too. Richard Feynman is often quoted about bias in research: "You are the easiest person to fool".
  4. Kelly
    “Powerful people tend to hang on to the opinions that made them powerful even if there is no longer sufficient evidence to support their views..”

    Dr. Paul Ewald - evolutionary biologist

    I'm not defending anyone or any theory, but if you look at it in terms of human beings being human of course scientists don't want to say after nearly 30 years of devoting their career to a specific theory, "Ooops, guess I bleeped that one up." On the contrary, when faced with information that negates their own, most people shift the argument. For example, when arguing the patients were malingers didn't work, then the argument became, well they may have had an initiating illness, but they just think they are still sick. More scientifically, it is known as confirmation bias and no one is immune.
  5. urbantravels
    I'm confused - this blog post seems to be saying that Ioannidis has published a new article in response to the Coyne paper, but I don't see a link to anything new by Ioannidis, just the original 2005 essay. Can you please provide a link to the Ioannidis article you are referencing?
    Simon likes this.
  6. Simon
    @alex
    "That the JPR publishes this is a good sign. It means that as a broad area of research there are at least some who are more interested in advancing our understanding than supporting dogma."

    @esther12
    "I fear that the controversy and hostility which has resulted from the poor work which surrounds CFS will mean that there may be even more of a bunker mentality from researchers looking at psychosocial factors around CFS."

    First, thanks for the Like/positive feedback.

    OK, 'start of a new era' might be wildly optimistic, but I do think publication in JPR is very significant. Ioannidis is the biggest name in challenging poor research generally and James Coyne is the fiercest critic of poor psychological research. I don't think JPR would have published if they weren't serious about at least engaging in real debate. Hopefully we will get to see the published responses to these papers.

    There's also quite a lot of other impressive new work by psychologists challenging sloppy psychological research (will blog on this next). But I'm sure many will vigorously defend the status quo too.
  7. jimells
    Nice work, Simon. Thanks.
  8. Esther12
    Thanks for the blog Simon.

    "Perhaps this marks the start of a new era of more rigorous—even healthily sceptical—evaluation of claims that psychological factors lead to illnesses such as CFS."

    I'm not ready to believe it yet!

    I fear that the controversy and hostility which has resulted from the poor work which surrounds CFS will mean that there may be even more of a bunker mentality from researchers looking at psychosocial factors around CFS.
  9. alex3619
    That the JPR publishes this is a good sign. It means that as a broad area of research there are at least some who are more interested in advancing our understanding than supporting dogma.