The Streetlight Effect

Why researchers look for answers where the looking is good, rather than where the answers are hiding

From my article in the July 2010 issue of Discover:

A bolt of excitement ran through the field of cardiology in the early 1980s when anti-arrhythmic drugs burst onto the scene.  Cardiologists knew that heart-attack victims with steadier heartbeats were far more likely to survive, so a drug that could tamp out heartbeat irregularities seemed like a no-brainer.  The drugs quickly became the standard of care for heart-attack patients, and were soon smoothing out heartbeats in intensive-care wards around the US, as described in numerous published studies.  But in the early 1990s cardiologists realized the drugs were also doing something else: killing about 40,000 heart-attack patients a year.  Yes, the hearts were beating more regularly on the drug, but the patients were on average one-third as likely to pull through.  Cardiologists had been so focused on immediately measurable heartbeat irregularities that they hadn’t been paying enough attention to the longer-term, but far more important, variable of death.
   There’s an old joke scientists love to tell: A police officer finds a drunk man late at night crawling on his hands and knees on a sidewalk under a streetlight.  Questioned, the drunk man tells her he’s looking for his wallet.  When the officer asks if he’s sure that he dropped the wallet here, the man replies that he thinks he more likely dropped it across the street.  Then why are you looking over here? asks the befuddled officer.  Because the light’s better here, explains the drunk man.
   That drunk fellow is in good company.  Many and possibly most scientists spend their careers looking for answers where the light’s better rather than where the truth is more likely to lie….read more

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