University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, October 23rd 2015
Speaker: Joseph Gabriel, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Subject: Origins of a Legitimation Crisis: Medical Science, Private Profit, and the Challenge of Big Pharma
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, has recently suggested that as much as half of all published medical literature may be false. Horton is not alone in making such a claim: over the past decade a growing number of influential critics from within the medical establishment have raised significant concerns about the evidentiary basis of contemporary medicine. Drawing from my recent work on intellectual property rights and the history of the pharmaceutical industry, in this talk I present some preliminary thoughts on the origins of what I see as a brewing legitimation crisis facing medical science. I suggest that one possible origin point for current concerns about the evidentiary basis of scientific medicine can be found during the late nineteenth century, when a series of therapeutic reformers re-conceptualized the relationship between medical science and monopoly rights in drug manufacturing. In doing so, these reformers sought to legitimize the role of private profit in the production of scientific knowledge; unintentionally, they also cast in doubt the very possibility of an objective science free from motivated self-interest. Since then, I suggest, the tension between private profit as both a productive force and a source of skepticism has been generalized to such an extent that the very possibility of actionable scientific knowledge in the medical domain now seems threatened.

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