Broad Medical Uncertainty and the ethical obligation for openness

Synthese 200 (2):1-29 (2022)
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Abstract

This paper argues that there exists a collective epistemic state of ‘Broad Medical Uncertainty’ regarding the effectiveness of many medical interventions. We outline the features of BMU, and describe some of the main contributing factors. These include flaws in medical research methodologies, bias in publication practices, financial and other conflicts of interest, and features of how evidence is translated into practice. These result in a significant degree of uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of many medical treatments and unduly optimistic beliefs about the benefit/harm profiles of such treatments. We argue for an ethical presumption in favour of openness regarding BMU as part of a ‘Corrective Response’. We then consider some objections to this position, including concerns that public honesty about flaws in medical research could undermine trust in healthcare institutions. We suggest that, as it stands, the Anti-Corrective Response is unconvincing.

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Brian D. Earp
Oxford University

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