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A recent attempt to estimate the false-positive rate for cancer epidemiology studies is based on agents in International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) category 3 (agent not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans) in the IARC Monographs Program. The estimation method is critiqued regarding biases caused by its reliance on the IARC classification criteria for assessing carcinogenic potential. The privileged position given to epidemiologic studies by the IARC criteria ensures that the percentage of positive epidemiologic studies for an agent will depend strongly on the IARC category to which the agent is assigned. Because IARC category 3 is composed of agents with the lowest-assessed carcinogenic potential to which the estimation approach in question could be applied, a spuriously low estimated false-positive rate was necessarily the outcome of this approach. Tendentious estimation approaches like that employed will by necessity produce spuriously low and misleading false positive rates. The recently reported estimates of the false-positive rate in cancer epidemiology are seriously biased and contribute nothing substantive to the literature on the very real problems related to false-positive findings in epidemiology.


Joseph K McLaughlin, Robert E Tarone. False positives in cancer epidemiology. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology. 2013 Jan;22(1):11-5

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PMID: 23118145

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