I’ve just got back from the ESMAC-SIAMOC meeting in Rome. We’ve been entertained royally for three days in the aulas and cloisters of the Thomas Aquinus University. It has once more been a fantastic opportunity to network and exchange ideas and on one level I come back rejuvenated and inspired.
I say “on one level” because on another level I’ve also come back somewhat disappointed – disappointed because there was little in the scientific programme which left me feeling I understood things better than I did before I arrived. A large number of papers could be summed up by the conclusion, “we understand this area less after performing this research than we did before we started”. I don’t think it is just ESMAC-SIAMC that suffers in this way. I see it at most of the conferences I attend and in a lot of papers that I read (and, if I’m being honest, in some of the papers that I write).
Just two areas illustrate this. One is in the advanced and complex modelling that is so often the focus of contemporary biomechanics. We learnt (or had confirmed) in Rome that the results are highly dependent on the details of how the individual anatomy is parameterised and of the calibration processes used to define joint centres. The overall conclusion is that we are less confident in the output of our simulations and models after we’ve performed this research than we were before. Of course it is important to know what the limitations of our research. At some stage, however, we will have to acknowledge those limitations and accept the conclusion that the biological complexity of the human neuromusculoskeletal system is just too great for us to stand any chance of applying these techniques usefully (at least not beyond the constraints of healthy people exercising tightly controlled tasks).
The other field is that of measuring spasticity. Seven or eight years ago I was really excited about the prospect of instrumenting clinical tests to quantify spasticity more rigorously. The results I’ve seen reported are really quite disappointing in that it seems that spasticity is a rather complex and badly behaved phenomenon that simply refuses to be measured. I have little faith any longer that spasticity is a purely velocity dependent response (Lance, 1980) and the additional complexity that is introduced when displacement, acceleration or even jerk might have to be considered removes any hope that we will ever understand how these components interrelate within the current paradigm.
One of the “advantages” of research leaving us less clear of what is happening than we were before is that it opens up the conclusion that “further research is required to better understand these phenomena”. Research thus begets research and the university departments rub their hands in glee at the prospect of more research grants, papers and citations. For many of us it leads to increased job security. We have a vicious circle that delights and thrives in creating complexity and chaos.
This is particularly bizarre in orthopaedic and rehabilitation fields (and perhaps more widely across health sciences) in that the tools we have to treat our patients are generally extremely blunt. Selective dorsal rhizotomy, intrathecal baclofen and botulinum toxin are the only tools we have to manage spasticity. At a clinical level the only decision we need to make is which, if any, of these to use. If we want our research to be clinically useful we need to concentrate on the simple questions that need to be answered before we turn our focus to the more complicated ones that don’t.
The small number of presentations that did impress me posed a research question in such a way that the answer actually improved my understanding of a given issue. Almost all of these resulted in me having a clearer, simpler view of the world after the presentation. This doesn’t necessarily require simplistic techniques. The walk-DMC scale that Kat Steele and Mike Schwartz proposed in their prize winning paper (page 25 of Abstract Book) uses a sophisticated technique. It is a technique, however, that has been appropriately selected to answer a well posed research question (Can we quantify the effect of disordered motor control on walking in children with cerebral palsy?). Once the appropriate techniques has been selected the answer is simple (Yes, at least on the basis of the preliminary analysis they presented).
One of the most ancient tests of the scientific quality is Occam’s Razor, that science (and our thinking in general) should be as simple possible but no simpler. It would be interesting to perform an audit of the presentations at any contemporary conference against this criterion. I suspect the results would be quite sobering.
Lance, J. (1980). Pathophysiology of spasticity and clinical experience with baclofen. In R. Feldman, R. Young & W. Koella (Eds.), Spasticity: disordered motor control (pp. 485-495). Chicago: Year book medical publishers.