Is Medicine Overrated?

John Horgan:

For years I have ranted about the flaws of medicine, especially when it comes to mental illness and cancer. But my complaints are mild compared to those of Jacob Stegenga, a philosopher of science at the University of Cambridge.

In Medical Nihilism, published by Oxford University Press, Stegenga presents a devastating critique of medicine. Most treatments, he argues, do not work very well, and many do more harm than good. Therefore we should “have little confidence in medical interventions” and resort to them much more sparingly. This is what Stegenga means by medical nihilism. I learned about Medical Nihilism from economist Russ Roberts, who recently interviewed Stegenga on the popular podcast EconTalk.

Skepticism toward medicine, sometimes called “therapeutic nihilism,” was once widespread, even among physicians, Stegenga notes. In 1860 Oliver Wendell Holmes, dean of Harvard Medical School, wrote that “if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes.”