Is meta-analysis the platinum standard of evidence?

An astonishing volume and diversity of evidence is available for many hypotheses in the biomedical and social sciences. Some of this evidence—usually from randomized controlled trials (RCTs)—is amalgamated by meta-analysis. Despite the ongoing debate regarding whether or not RCTs are the ‘gold-standard’ of evidence, it is usually meta-analysis which is considered the best source of evidence: meta-analysis is thought by many to be the platinum standard of evidence. However, I argue that meta-analysis falls far short of that standard. Different meta-analyses of the same evidence can reach contradictory conclusions. Meta-analysis fails to provide objective grounds for intersubjective assessments of hypotheses because numerous decisions must be made when performing a meta-analysis which allow wide latitude for subjective idiosyncrasies to influence its outcome. I end by suggesting that an older tradition of evidence in medicine—the plurality of reasoning strategies appealed to by the epidemiologist Sir Bradford Hill—is a superior strategy for assessing a large volume and diversity of evidence.
Keywords meta-analysis  RCT  randomized controlled trial  evidence
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.07.003
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PhilPapers Archive Jacob Stegenga, Is meta-analysis the platinum standard of evidence?
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References found in this work BETA
John Worrall (2007). Why There's No Cause to Randomize. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 58 (3):451-488.
John Worrall (2002). What Evidence in Evidence-Based Medicine? Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 2002 (3):S316-S330.

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Citations of this work BETA
Boaz Miller (2014). Catching the WAVE: The Weight-Adjusting Account of Values and Evidence. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 47:69-80.

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