Is meta-analysis the platinum standard of evidence?

Abstract

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.

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Jacob Stegenga
Cambridge University

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