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Philosophy Program and Dean of the College Present

Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Skepticism as a Medical Virtue, Precision as a Medical Vice
Olin, Room 102
5:00 pm – 6:15 pm
Kathryn Tabb
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University
In 2015, President Obama introduced an exciting new approach to medical research: the Precision Medicine Initiative. By using massive data sets and cutting-edge methods from genetics, neuroscience, and other fields, this $1.5 billion effort promises scientific breakthroughs that will yield better options for treatment and care. But is precision always a good thing for medicine? In this talk, I will draw on a tradition in the history of science, that of medical skepticism, to suggest that maybe precision isn’t always as valuable as it might appear to be at first glance. Galen, an influential Greek physician in the Roman Empire, described a popular approach to medicine that rejected the search for underlying causes of disease, and instead focused on alleviating symptoms and bringing comfort. Centuries later, John Locke, a physician as well as a philosopher, argued that knowledge of medical causes would always be out of human reach, no matter how far science advanced. In the current milieu, the celebration of precision amounts to a preference for clinical interventions that can be understood at the molecular level. But as skeptical physicians have long argued, the pursuit of this sort of explanation risks tempting the medical establishment away from its proper task, that of healing the sick. Drawing on this history, I build an ethical case for the revival of medical skepticism, in a form appropriate for the 21st century.

For more information, call 845-758-7270, or e-mail

Time: 5:00 pm – 6:15 pm

Location: Olin, Room 102