Chico Marx supposedly is the first one to say the above quote in the movie Duck Soup, but I’ve often heard it attributed to various politicians as well, when they’ve been caught doing something unsavory. Either way, the quote gets at an important concept…. how we ‘know’ something is true, and it’s a critically important question for medical scientists.
An article in the New York Times this week focuses on fundamental errors in medical research with a special type of MRI machine, called an fMRI (‘f’ stands for functional). These scanners, different than the MRI’s we use daily in the clinic, provide imaging of brain activity or function, and in so doing allow scientists to image thoughts in the brain as they are being formed. Thousands of studies have been done, and they’ve claimed that they can differentiate when someone is lying or telling the truth, based on the activity patterns of the brain, or other variations in thoughts a person is having.
The scans accuracy depends on complex computer software to interpret the image data and to form the pictures, but recent studies show that this software has major flaws, and thus the images they produced may also be seriously flawed. That this common variance is not considered in the critical review of these studies, calls into question all of the findings in these studies and the conclusions drawn from them.
Since fMRI imaging does not have any practical implications in day-to-day medical practice, this specific issue is of no clinical significance to patients, but the issue of questioning research accuracy in a new medical study, or of studies of new medications that are ‘supposedly’ better than the old tried-and-true, is critical. This is why I tend to maintain a very conservative approach to medical practice, looking with a good bit of skepticism at the novel and new.