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Radio review: Analysis, and The Documentary

26 November 2021

Imperial Today

Professor Sheena McCormack described for Analysis (Radio 4, Monday of last week) the gruelling business of randomised control trials (RCTs)

Professor Sheena McCormack described for Analysis (Radio 4, Monday of last week) the gruelling business of randomised control trials (RCTs)

TEN years, four countries, thousands of people. And, at the end of it, nothing to show but a great deal of data adding up to not very much. Welcome to the other side of science; the side that does not end up in breakthrough vaccines and Nobel Prizes. Professor Sheena McCormack, of University College London, described for Analysis (Radio 4, Monday of last week) the gruelling business of randomised control trials (RCTs) — in this instance, involving a treatment for sexually transmitted disease.

The end result — that there was no discernible benefit to be had from the particular intervention on trial — was heartbreaking. But you cannot, by sheer force of will, or application of what you regard as common sense, argue with the stats. You dust yourself off and try something else.

Michael Blastland’s documentary provided a bracing corrective to contemporary claims made for “The Science”, its status now so elevated that it has acquired the definite article as honorific. “Finding things out” (the title of this episode) is very hard, and it is not at all clear what method one should use to do the finding out.

A properly conducted RCT requires large numbers of subjects. If, for instance, you have a disease that occurs in 1 in 100 of the population, and a drug that is 20 per cent effective in treating the disease, to get a statistically useful data set you need thousands of subjects — and, on top of that, you need a control group.

Yet it is difficult for people to accept the possibility that we don’t know, particularly in an environment in which science, politics, and the media have formed an unhealthy relationship of mutual co-dependence. Ask a scientist such as Dr Maria Popp straight up what the efficacy of Ivermectin is in treating Covid, and she will tell you, o the basis on a survey of existing studies, that there is insufficient quality evidence either way. But not knowing does not cut it in a world in which “The Science” determines basic forms of social behaviour. As Hilaire Belloc put it: “Oh! let us never, never doubt What nobody is sure about!”

Nobody ever claimed that trading on the financial markets was an exact science, although 14-year-old Joon Kwon, featured in The Documentary (World Service, Tuesday of last week), has managed better than most to smooth the ups and downs into a mostly reliable upward trajectory. Joon is one of a growing number of young people who coped with the boredom of lockdown by dealing in stocks through one of a new range of easily accessible trading apps. With features that make the process feel much like any other game, these apps appear to have hooked an international clientele on to a new addiction.

The Korea Center for Gambling Problems has reported a threefold increase in numbers engaging with its services owing to the trend; and we heard here from a young truck-driver who made and lost $75,000 doing deals. It may be the quintessential First World problem, but, for all our sakes, I hope that he was not doing all this trading while behind the wheel.

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