What is Medicine if Not Precise? – Online

28 May 2020 - 17:00-18:15

Lecture: Kathryn Tabb, Bard College

Online Videoconference (Zoom)

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Video Recording


Precision (or personalized) medicine is often described as a “paradigm shift” or “revolution” in modern medical research and, increasingly, clinical practice. It is broadly understood to refer to the use of biomarkers (often genetic signatures) to match patients up with effective treatments, along with the biomedical research that makes such clinical innovations possible. In this talk I offer a conceptual analysis of “precision” as a term meant to unite a set of medical ideals: big data, reduction, and taxonomic revision. Through a comparison of two fields to which the term has been enthusiastically applied — oncology and psychiatry — I show how the presumption that these ideals are concomitantly realizable in contemporary medicine is rhetorically powerful but not, ultimately, convincing. Determining that “precision” should be seen an ideal for medicine rather than a new paradigm, I go on to consider what ideal it intends to replace. While advocates of precision medicine often characterize it in opposition to traditional practices and methods that are vague, careless or nonspecific, I argue that the true opponent of precision medicine — that is, the sort of medicine that stands to lose the most by its ascendency — is general. And this, I conclude, should concern us.