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Is medicine an Exact Science?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2022

Lester S. King*
University of Illinois College of Medicine


It is an interesting paradox that on the one hand intemperate enthusiasm greets new medical discoveries. On the other hand, the lack of science in medicine is paraded from time to time, usually as a matter of apologetics, as, when a physician wishes to excuse an error, a lawyer to discredit a physician, or a jury to render a verdict contrary to medical evidence. Philosophers who insist on the mathematical or quantitative aspects in any definition of science ascribe very little that is truly scientific to biology in general or to its daughter medicine in particular. Jerome Frank comments approvingly that “many scientific-minded physicians today deny that medicine is, or is likely ever to be, a science.” (4) Articulate physicians themselves may be highly critical. Dr. Ian Stevenson, for example, declares, “Medicine will not achieve the status of a science until the basic laws of health and disease have been disclosed. But the search for these laws has hardly begun.” (10) Stevenson goes on to point out that instead of seeking basic laws, medicine is concentrating on facts, from which no laws emerge.

Research Article
Copyright © Philosophy of Science Association 1952

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(1) Carnap, R., “Logical Foundations of the Unity of Science.” Reprinted in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, Ed. by Feigl, H. and Sellars, W. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York. 1949. p. 410.Google Scholar
(2) Cohen, M. R. and Nagel, E., An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method. Harcourt Brace and Co., New York. 1934. p. 191.Google Scholar
(3) Feigl, H., “Logical Empiricism” in, Readings in Philosophical Analysis, Ed. by Feigl, H. and Sellars, W. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York. 1949. p. 5.Google Scholar
(4) Frank, J., Fate and Freedom. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1945 p. 41.Google Scholar
(5) Ramsperger, A. G., Philosophies of Science. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York. 1942. p. 118.Google Scholar
(6) ibid p. 272–3 (italics mine—L.S.K.).Google Scholar
(7) Rapoport, A., Science and the goals of man. Harper and Brothers, New York. 1950. p. 35.Google Scholar
(8) Standen, A., Science is a Sacred Cow. E. P. Dutton and Co., New York. 1950. p. 27.Google Scholar
(9) Standen, A., loc. cit. p. 150.Google Scholar
(10) Stevenson, I., “Why medicine is not a science.” Harper's Magazine, April, 1949. p. 36.Google Scholar
(11) Sullivan, J. W. N., The Limitation of Science. Mentor Books, The New American Library of World Literature, New York. 1949. p. 162.Google Scholar