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Mere anecdote: evidence and stories in medicine

Authors

  • Robin Nunn JD PhD

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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Dr Robin Nunn, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), 91 Charles St. West, Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 1K7. E-mail: r.nunn@utoronto.ca

Abstract

In evidence-based medicine, randomized controlled trials are said to be the highest evidence of what works, while anecdotes have low value or are not even considered to be medical evidence. Similar hierarchical views of evidence have infected other disciplines, including evidence-based education and evidence-based government. Here, I explore the artificial divisions of acceptable from unacceptable evidence, numbers from narrative and sciences from humanities. I challenge the deprecation of stories in medicine. Some stories are based on experiments while others are based on more or less plausible theories. Some stories offer vast and impressive statistics gathered from many observations while others present one noteworthy event. Published reports are themselves stories of what experimenters did. Systematic reviewers generate their own observations of collected stories of experiments. Reviewers of systematic reviews in turn report their observations of systematic reviews. All of these stories become evidence of what works in medicine.

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