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Parachutes Can't Save People Who Fall Out of Airplanes

Parachutes Can’t Save People Who Fall Out of Airplanes

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You might think that it’s safer to jump out of an airplane with a parachute than without one. But, according to science, you’d be wrong.

The finding is detailed Thursday (Dec. 13) in the journal The BMJ’s Christmas issue, which features research that is more lighthearted than the journal’s usual fare. For the study, the researchers tested the effectiveness of parachutes on 23 people falling out of airplanes. They equipped half of the participants with parachutes, and had the other half jump out of the planes with empty North Face backpacks strapped to their backs.They found that the parachutes made no difference on whether the participants in the study lived or died.

“Our groundbreaking study found no statistically significant difference in the primary outcome [death] between the treatment [parachute] and control [no parachute] arms,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings should give momentary pause to experts who advocate for routine use of parachutes for jumps from aircraft in recreational or military settings.” [The 16 Strangest Medical Cases]

Of course, it’s hard to find people willing to jump out of airplanes thousands of feet in the air or moving hundreds of miles per hour, so they tested parachutes on people falling just a couple of feet toward the ground when the airplane was parked and not moving at all. (The researchers call this a “minor caveat” in the study design.)

But you have to read all the way down to the fourth paragraph of the study’s report to figure that out. And, similarly, the researchers don’t clarify until a good chunk of the way through their paper that the airplanes weren’t actually flying, and that there was no change in the death rate because no one died in either group.

The real point of this study, the researchers reveal near the end of the paper, is to make a point about how people interpret results from scientific papers.

“The parachute trial satirically highlights some of the limitations of randomized controlled trials,” in which participants are randomly assigned to the treatment or control group in order to reduce bias, they wrote. “Nevertheless, we believe that such trials remain the gold standard for the evaluation of most new treatments. The parachute trial does suggest, however, that their accurate interpretation requires more than a cursory reading of the abstract [the first, summary paragraph of a scientific article].”

Their study also suggests, they said, that clinical trials evaluating old, established treatments (like parachutes for falling out of airplanes) should make sure to study the people who most need the treatment. Slapping the treatment on the back of someone who doesn’t really need it doesn’t tell you much about whether it works.

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