Uncertainty, Bias, and Equipoise: A New Approach to the Ethics of Clinical Research

Theoretical and Applied Ethics 3 (1):35-59 (2014)
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Abstract

The concept of equipoise is considered by many to be part of the ethical justification for using human subjects in clinical research. In general, equipoise indicates some uncertainty about the relative merits of the experimental intervention compared to existing treatments. Relieving this uncertainty gives scientific value to an experiment, thereby making the risks to human subjects in the trial acceptable, other considerations notwithstanding. But characterizing equipoise remains controversial since Freedman’s groundbreaking publication on the subject. We offer a new account of equipoise that draws on and extends an option Freedman discarded. After establishing the importance of some account of equipoise as part of ethically justified clinical trials, we revisit Freedman’s distinction between clinical and theoretical equipoise. We raise concerns about Freedman’s preferred clinical equipoise and then rehabilitate theoretical equipoise. In particular, we use a variety of arguments from epistemology to show how Freedman was too hasty in rejecting theoretical equipoise. In addition, we argue that theoretical equipoise is a subspecies of epistemic equipoise, which we characterize as a form of uncertainty that is the result of the possibility of error. This type of uncertainty can best be alleviated by research, which produces beliefs supported by strong statistical evidence, which is a key aim of clinical trials. Further, this type of uncertainty can explain why even clinicians with more firsthand experience with an intervention than their peers, and who may not be in theoretical equipoise, could still justifiably support a trial designed to ameliorate the possibility of error due to cognitive bias.

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