Although the terms data and evidence are often used interchangeably, data is not a synonym for evidence. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines data as “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis” and evidence as “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2011). The difference is whether or not the information is being used to draw scientific conclusions about a specific proposition. In the context of a drug study, the “proposition” is a hypothesis about a drug effect, often stated in the form of a scientific question, such as “Do broad-spectrum antibiotics increase the risk of colitis”? In the broader context of FDA’s regulatory decisions, the proposition may be implicit in the public health question that prompts the need for a regulatory decision, such as, “Does the risk of colitis caused by broad-spectrum antibiotics outweigh their benefits to the public’s health”? In this way, evidence is defined with respect to the questions developed in the first step of the decision-making framework described in Chapter 2.
Statistical methods help to ascertain the “strength of the evidence” supporting a given hypothesis by measuring the degree to which the data support one hypothesis rather than the other. The evidence in turn affects the likelihood that either hypothesis is true. The most common scientific hypothesis in the realm of drug evaluation is the “null hypothesis”—that in a given treated population, the drug has no effect relative to a comparator treatment. For the concept of evidence to have meaning, however, there must be at least one other hypothesis under consideration, such as that the drug has some effect.
A small change in the scientific hypotheses being compared can change the strength of the evidence provided by a given set of data. For example, if the question above changed from whether broad-spectrum antibiotics produce any increase in the risk of colitis to whether broad-spectrum antibiotics produce a clinically important increase in the risk of colitis—say, an increase of more than 10 percent—the strength of the evidence provided by the same data could change. Where one observer might see a four percent increase in risk as strong evidence of some excess risk, another could regard it as strong evidence against a 10 percent increase in risk.1 Agreement on the strength of the evidence therefore requires agreement on the hypotheses being contrasted and on the public health questions that gives rise to them.
1Confusion can result from use of the word significant to describe an effect that is both statistically significant and clinically relevant; the latter is often termed clinically significant. The two uses should remain separate.