False-positive results in cancer epidemiology: a plea for epistemological modesty

J Natl Cancer Inst. 2008 Jul 16;100(14):988-95. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djn191. Epub 2008 Jul 8.


False-positive results are inherent in the scientific process of testing hypotheses concerning the determinants of cancer and other human illnesses. Although much of what is known about the etiology of human cancers has arisen from well-conducted epidemiological studies, epidemiology has been increasingly criticized for producing findings that are often sensationalized in the media and fail to be upheld in subsequent studies. Herein we describe examples from cancer epidemiology of likely false-positive findings and discuss conditions under which such results may occur. We suggest general guidelines or principles, including the endorsement of editorial policies requiring the prominent listing of study caveats, which may help reduce the reporting of misleading results. Increased epistemological humility regarding findings in epidemiology would go a long way to diminishing the detrimental effects of false-positive results on the allocation of limited research resources, on the advancement of knowledge of the causes and prevention of cancer, and on the scientific reputation of epidemiology and would help to prevent oversimplified interpretations of results by the media and the public.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acrylonitrile / toxicity
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Dioxins / toxicity
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • False Positive Reactions*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Knowledge
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Lung Neoplasms / etiology
  • Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin / epidemiology
  • Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin / etiology
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Prospective Studies
  • Publication Bias*
  • Risk Assessment


  • Carcinogens
  • Dioxins
  • Acrylonitrile