Yes Sir, no Sir, not much difference Sir

Royal Cypher of Queen Elizabeth IIThis is the superb title of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. The paper is open access, and I urge you to click on the link and read the summary – it’s a delight and will only take you a minute.

The context of the paper is the Cochrane collaboration and Sir Iain Chalmers. You probably have not heard of the Cochrane collaboration, but it is important, I think. They do stuff like systematic reviews of the scientific literature on drug trials. This sounds dull, and I am sure a lot of the work that goes into it, is dull. But it is important. Many drug trials involve small numbers of patients and so the signal to noise ratio is too low to pick up rare but nasty problems, like an increased suicide risk with some antidepressants. But by combining all the published studies, the Cochrane collaboration can reanalyse the data and pick up problems that don’t show up in just one trial. This is important work, and makes a positive contribution to making healthcare better.

One of the founders of the Cochrane collaboration is the medic Iain Chalmers, who was recognised for this with a knighthood. At the time Chalmers was writing to many in the field (as the paper summary says) and this raises the question: To sign the letters plain old Iain Chalmers, or the monarch-endorsed Sir Iain Chalmers?

Now, the Cochrane collaboration is all about getting the data and then doing careful data analysis, so I guess it was obvious that they should get the data, and analyse it in the correct scientific way. Which they did. They randomly sent out half the letters with Sir, and half without, and then measured the response rate and time. There was no significant difference. It seems that (for that particular set of recipients), the title makes no difference.

I find that quite reassuring. And it is always good to see the scientific method applied well. Guess the logical response to this is that, in the rather unlikely event that I am offered a knighthood, I should toss a coin to decide.