Treatment effectiveness, generalizability, and the explanatory/pragmatic-trial distinction

Synthese 200 (4):1-29 (2022)


The explanatory/pragmatic-trial distinction enjoys a burgeoning philosophical and medical literature and a significant contingent of support among philosophers and healthcare stakeholders as an important way to assess the design and results of randomized controlled trials. A major motivation has been the need to provide relevant, generalizable data to drive healthcare decisions. While talk of pragmatic and explanatory trials could be seen as convenient shorthand, the distinction can also be seen as harboring deeper issues related to inferential strategies used to evaluate causal claims regarding medical treatments. A comprehensive, critical analysis of the distinction and underlying epistemological framework upon which the distinction is based, particularly with respect to treatment effectiveness, has yet to be forthcoming. I provide this, analyzing the distinction’s relationship to generalizability and cognate distinctions between ideal conditions and real-world practice, internal and external validity, and efficacy and effectiveness. I also analyze recent philosophical work that relies on the explanatory/pragmatic-trial distinction and that advocates for more pragmatic trials. I conclude that as an organizing principle for trial-design decisions and trial evaluation, the explanatory/pragmatic-trial distinction is conceptually problematic and not as useful as its proponents seem to think. Since some pragmatic-trial features can be inimical to establishing treatment effectiveness, pragmatic-trial features should not be conflated with pragmatic trials’ avowed goals. If the distinction is to be useful, it and some associated concepts, including generalizability, should be reformulated, lest they continue to underlie a medical epistemology that could contribute to methodologically flawed and potentially unethical advice for the design and interpretation of trials.

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References found in this work

Medical Nihilism.Jacob Stegenga - 2018 - Oxford University Press.
Measuring Effectiveness.Jacob Stegenga - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 54:62-71.
Philosophers on Drugs.Bennett Holman - 2019 - Synthese 196 (11):4363-4390.

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Citations of this work

Treatment Effectiveness and the Russo–Williamson Thesis, EBM+, and Bradford Hill's Viewpoints.Steven Tresker - 2022 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 34 (3):131-158.

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