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Research published in a large medical journal concludes that a parachute is not more effective than an empty backpack to protect you from harm if you have to jump from an airplane.
But before you skip any conclusions, you'd better hear the whole story.
The gold standard for medical research is a study that randomly assigns volunteers to try to intervene or go without one and be part of a control group.
For some reason, no one has ever made a randomized controlled parachute trial. In fact, medical researchers often use the parachute example when arguing that they do not need to do a study because they are so confident that they already know something is working.
Cardiologist Robert Yeh, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and attendance physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, received a vicious idea one day. He and his colleagues would actually try to do the parachute study to make some polls about potential pitfalls for research shortcuts.
They started talking to their parents on aircraft.
"We should meet and say" Would you be willing to be randomized in a study where you had a 50 percent chance of jumping out of this aircraft with – versus without – parachute? "" Yeh says. "
Only a few people agreed to this scandalous invitation, and they were ruled out by dubious mental health.
Scientists had much better success and asked members of their own research groups from Harvard, University of California, Los Angeles (where Yeh's brother is an operating professor) and the University of Michigan (where a friend works) on volunteering to participate in the experiment on other aircraft.
Altogether, 23 people came to randomly give either a backpack or parachute and then jump from a biplane at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts or from a helicopter in Michigan.
Courtesy by Robert Yeh
Depending on the two sites and only two types of aircraft, the researchers gave quite a sample. But this type of problem often grows in studies, which was part of the point that Yeh and his team were trying to make.
But pictures taken during the experiment show that the volunteers were just happy to attend. "I think people are laughing all the way to the ground," Yeh says.
Oh, there is one important detail here. The fall in the study was about 2 meters in total, as the biplane and helicopter were parked.
No one was injured. Surprise, surprise. So it is technically true that parachutes do not offer any better protection for these jumpers than the backpacks.
"But that is of course a ridiculous result," says Yeh. "The real answer is that the trial did not show any benefit because of the types of patients enrolled."
If they had registered people at high risk of injury, ie persons in aircraft the results would have been quite different (not to mention unethical).
But something like that happens in everyday medical research. It is too easy for researchers who have already expected the outcome of their research on cherry pack patients and circumstances to achieve the results they expect to see.
The study's findings were published in the traditionally light heart of the medical journal, BMJ .
"It is a little bit of a parable, to say that we must look at fine print, we must understand the context in which research is designed and implemented to truly interpret the result," Yeh says. Scientists often read only the conclusion of a study and then draw their own conclusions that are far more sweeping than what is justified by the actual results.
This is a real problem in science.
"I know people often do not" look carefully at what is being investigated to know how to interpret the results of a trial, says Cecile Janssens, an epidemiology professor at Emory University.
Janssens was happy to get over the paper on Twitter. She says as much research, its results are accurate as far as they go, but "the results can only be generalized to situations where people jump out of an airplane within a few meters across the ground."
She plans to give this paper to her students with a straight face and see how long it takes for them to get the deeper scientific methodology score buried in this absurd experiment.
"It will be unforgettable" she says – much better than entering a real scientific study.
Yeh is happy to see that the fun he had with his colleagues becomes a teaching tool. He also saves some of the more subtle lessons buried in the newspaper.
For example, researchers attempted to submit it to a research study register, which is required for many studies involving human subjects. They chose one in Sri Lanka to reduce the risk of it being discovered in advance, destroying jokes. It was rejected.
"They believed that a trial conducted in this way could not lead to scientifically valid evidence," he said.
"They are right!" he adds with a laugh.
In fact, paper confirms that the research team members cracked so much that "all writers suffered great abdominal discomfort from laughter".
"Our greatest achievement from all this was we felt very good that we could quote Sir Isaac Newton in the paper," he says. They referred to Newton's classic 1687 papers that established the law of gravity.
Yes, gravity is a law