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Blowing the Whistle on Science Shams--in Surgery and in Reading

Posted: 2002-07-10

The New England Journal of Medicine has published a report declaring arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis a sham. When will the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English and other professional groups call government-ordered scientific reading a sham? And then will the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times print this information?

The front page New York Times headline reads "A Knee Surgery for Arthritis Is Called Sham." The Times is reporting on an article in The New England Journal of Medicine showing that a popular and expensive knee operation for arthritis does not work.

"Here we are doing all this surgery on people and it's all a sham," said Dr. Baruch Brody, an ethicist at Baylor College of Medicine who helped design the study performed by investigators at the Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Baylor whereby randomly selected patients scheduled for arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis were given placebo surgery instead. These patients were sedated and surgeons simulated an operation, making cuts in their knee so the patients would not know if they had the surgery. Then results were compared with patients who had surgery.

This knee surgery is done on at least 225,000 middle-age and older Americans each year at a cost of more than a billion dollars.

Physicians worry whether placebo surgery is unethical. To be ethical, say the researchers, a study with placebo surgery must meet three criteria:

1) it must not place patients at undue risk;

2) the benefits of learning whether the surgery works must be worth any potential risk to the patients;

3) the patients must give informed consent

Modest Proposal: Let's demand investigation of a bigger science sham: scientific reading as promoted by the No Child Left Behind legislation. This reading methodology, which is both popular with politicians and expensive, does not meet any ethical criteria.

1) Undue risk: There?s plenty of evidence that the risk of inflicting ?grunt decoding,? with its overemphasis on rote skill drill, has a harmful effect on helping children develop a passion for books that will make them both lifelong readers and acute critics of what they read.

2) Benefits:The benefits of exposing children to early rote decoding remain unproven by its supporters and seriously questioned by its opponents.

3) Informed Consent: You can?t give ?informed consent? when you are not allowed to refuse the mandated program or when no other choice is allowed.

Through ReadingFirst grants, the federal government now mandates that Texas governor George Bush's favorite reading system, the one labeled "scientific" by its handlers, is now the law of the land. Experienced teachers who know how to teach reading are being ordered to abandon what they know for the new sham science.

The No Child Left Behind legislation mandates, through ReadingFirst, that no one is allowed to give informed consent?not children, not parents, not teachers, not principals, not state commissioners of education. The Feds are saying, "You have the right to comply."

Susan Ohanian

Senior Fellow

Vermont Society for the Study of Education

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