I haven’t yet read Angus Deaton and Anne Case’s book Deaths of Despair but it’s on my list. What strikes me about the discussion in the Boston Review is its resonance with the refrain from the alt right, much maligned by the alt left, that things are tough and getting tougher if you’re an uneducated white guy. Looks like we might now have some evidence to feed into that hitherto entirely ideological debate.
I’m delighted to learn that there will be a Korean translation of my 2019 book Philosophy of Medicine. My 2013 book Philosophy of Epidemiology was also translated into Korean.
I would be interested to connect with other audiences in the eastern parts of the world; if anyone has potential connections that I could explore, please let me know.
My book Philosophy of Medicine (Oxford University Press) has now been published in the USA, and in paperback in the UK. Hardback date in the UK is 28 March. E-books are of course available.
I am putting together a series of YouTube videos corresponding to each of the chapters, by way of segue into the fourth industrial revolution.
The book carves out some new territory in the field, by taking a broad view of medicine as something existing in different forms, in different times and places. I argue that any adequate understanding of medicine must say something about what medicine is, given this apparent variety of actual practices that are either claimed to be or regarded as medical. I argue that, while the goal of medicine is to cure, its track record in this regard is patchy at best. This gives rise to the question of why medicine has persisted despite being so commonly ineffective. I argue that this persistence shows that the business of medicine – the practice of a core medical competence – cannot be cure, even if that is the goal. Instead, what doctors provide is understanding and prediction, or at least engagement with the project of understanding health and disease.
I also cover the familiar question of the nature of health. The naturalism/normativism dichotomy is a false one, since it elides two dimensions of disagreement, one concerning objectivity, the other concerning value-ladenness. It is obvious that these are logically distinct properties. I argue that health is a secondary property, like colour, consisting in a disposition on our part to respond to an underlying reality which, however, does not carve the world in the way that our responses do. The reason that we have this disposition to respond to the underlying properties rather than some other – the reason that we have this particular health concept – is the advantages it conferred on groups of humans during our evolutionary history. My secondary property view sees health as a non-objective but non-evaluative property, and this places it in a previously unoccupied portion of the logical space created by distinguishing clearly between the dimensions of traditional disagreement.
The second part of the book concerns the attitude we should have towards medicine, and is informed by the understanding of the nature of medicine developed in the first part. Evidence Based Medicine and Medical Nihilism are discussed. The former sets high standards for what counts as evidence. The latter basically accepts these standards and then argues that so little medical research meets these standards that we should despair of medicine, and regard even apparently well-supported interventions as probably ineffective. Both views are rejected on their merits, but a connecting theme is their location of the whole value of medicine in its curative powers. I see value in medicine beyond cure, and thus even if the arguments of EBMers and nihilists succeeded on their merits (which I deny), they would not warrant such a negative attitude to the majority of medicine.
Philosophy of medicine has had little to say about non-Mainstream traditions, beyond occasional spats with alternative therapists. The last three chapters of the book seek to remedy this. A view called Medical Cosmopolitanism is advanced (inspired by Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book and ethical position Cosmopolitanism) as an alternative to the evidence-basing and nihilistic stances. The main tenets are realism about medical facts, especially what works, epistemic humility when discussing these facts, and the primacy of practice – focusing on specific problems rather than grand principles. Realism means that we should not shy away from trying to determine whether one or another intervention is better; we should not have a “hands off” approach, even where deep and/or cultural beliefs are at stake. Epistemic humility means that when approaching disagreements we must be mindful of the less-than-distinguished history of medical claims, and must be respectful, tentative, open to changing our mind. The primacy of practice is the idea that we focus first on what to do in particular cases, since agreement here is usually easier than on larger principles.
I then apply this position to medical dissidence and decolonization of medicine. Medical dissidence occurs when traditions co-exist with a more dominant tradition and reject parts of it. Homeopathy is the paradigm case. I advocate a much more tolerant stance between disputants about alternative medicine, arguing that the reason for different views (also extending to topics such as vaccination) is that all of our medical evidence reaches us through testimony, and trust then becomes king-maker as to which medical evidence you accept. It’s no good telling someone that a trial was fantastic if they just don’t believe you, and nor are they irrational to reject evidence from a trial if they just don’t believe that the trial occurred, or was fair, or similar. Unless you run a trial yourself, you are in the position of receiving your medical information second-hand, and then trust relationships become paramount. This patchy history of medical success amply explains why trust in any given tradition might be hard to come by.
Finally, contact between medicines deriving from different cultures presents interesting epistemic and practical challenges. In former colonies, these challenges must be handled carefully. Medicine is imbued with culture, and to insist on one medicine over another can be culturally oppressive. At the same time, cosmopolitanism is committed to realism. So, no matter how deeply held a belief in the efficacy of a certain intervention or ritual, if this ritual does not work or is less effective than one provided by Mainstream Medicine (as I call it – since it is no longer strictly Western) then this fact must be confronted. Moreover, ordinary people just want efficacy: we can quibble at the periphery, but fundamentally, illness is a universal human experience, as is holding a sick child in your arms. Thus I advocate something a little more critical than “dialogue” between traditions. I invite a critical attitude. The approach must be humble, and Mainstream Medicine must concede that it may well have something to learn from, e.g., African Medicine. But decolonization must fundamentally consist in the adoption of a critical mindset, one that rejected political colonization, and that goes on to reject epistemic colonization. This critical mindset demands that African, Chinese, Indian and other traditions take the inevitable confrontation with Mainstream Medicine seriously, and seriously consider whether their various interventions and strategies are effective, just as they ask Mainstream Medicine to take these interventions and strategies seriously.
My forthcoming book Philosophy of Medicine will be available 2 Jan 2019.
“The first thing to love about this book is what you can learn from it: what medicine can do even if it can’t cure much, what evidence-based medicine may have achieved and what it may not have, the role of common law and the importance of cosmopolitanism, the dangers of epistemic medical relativism, a value-free definition of ‘health’ and much more. The second is that it practices what it preaches. The epistemic humility and practice-centered cosmopolitanism that Broadbent advocates for medicine characterize his own arguments and explanations. The book is thoughtful, humane, informed, a serious study, both philosophically and practically.” – Nancy Cartwright, Professor of Philosophy at Durham University and Distinguished Professor at University of California, San Diego
“Alex Broadbent’s Philosophy of Medicine addresses important topics that have been largely eclipsed by debates on bioethics and the nature of health and disease. In particular, Broadbent focuses on the core issues of what medicine is essentially and how to make medical decisions. His book makes significant contributions to the field not only by addressing neglected topics with historical and cultural sensitivity, but also through some ground-breaking claims, for instance that the business of medicine is not to cure.” – Thaddeus Metz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg
Philosophy of Medicine asks two central questions about medicine: what is it, and what should we think of it? Philosophy of medicine itself has evolved in response to developments in the philosophy of science, especially with regard to epistemology, positioning it to make contributions that are medically useful. This book locates these developments within a larger framework, suggesting that much philosophical thinking about medicine contributes to answering one or both of these two guiding questions.
Taking stock of philosophy of medicine’s present place in the landscape and its potential to illuminate a wide range of areas, from public health to policy, Alex Broadbent introduces various key topics in the philosophy of medicine. The first part of the book argues for a novel view of the nature of medicine, arguing that medicine should be understood as an inquiry into the nature and causes of health and disease. Medicine excels at achieving understanding, but not at translating this understanding into cure, a frustration that has dogged the history of medicine and continues to the present day.
The second part of the book explores how we ought to consider medicine. Contemporary responses, such as evidence-based medicine and medical nihilism, tend to respond by fixing high standards of evidence. Broadbent rejects these approaches in favor of Medical Cosmopolitanism, or a rejection of epistemic relativism and pluralism about medicine that encourages conversations between medical traditions. From this standpoint, Broadbent opens the way to embracing alternative medicine.
An accessible and user-friendly guide, Philosophy of Medicine puts these different debates into perspective and identifies areas that demand further exploration.
Table of Contents
Part A. What Is Medicine?
1. Varieties of Medicine
2. The Goal of Medicine
3. The Business of Medicine
4. Health and Disease
Part B. What Should We Think of Medicine?
5. Evidence-Based Medicine
6. Medical Nihilism
7. Medical Cosmopolitanism
8. Alternatives and Medical Dissidence
9. Decolonizing Medicine
See more and pre-order at https://global.oup.com/academic/product/philosophy-of-medicine-9780190612139