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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

A philosophical analysis of the evidence-based medicine debate

Scott R Sehon1* and Donald E Stanley2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Philosophy, 8400 College Station, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME 04011, USA

2 Associates in Pathology, 500 West Neck Road, Nobelboro, ME 04555, USA

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BMC Health Services Research 2003, 3:14  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-3-14

Published: 21 July 2003



The term "evidence-based medicine" (or EBM) was introduced about ten years ago, and there has been considerable debate about the value of EBM. However, this debate has sometimes been obscured by a lack of conceptual clarity concerning the nature and status of EBM.


First, we note that EBM proponents have obscured the current debate by defining EBM in an overly broad, indeed almost vacuous, manner; we offer a clearer account of EBM and its relation to the alternative approaches to medicine. Second, while EBM proponents commonly cite the philosophical work of Thomas Kuhn and claim that EBM is a Kuhnian 'paradigm shift,' we argue that such claims are seriously mistaken and unduly polarize the EBM debate. Third, we suggest that it is much more fruitful to understand the relationship between EBM and its alternatives in light of a different philosophical metaphor: W.V. Quine's metaphor of the web of belief. Seen in this way, we argue that EBM is an approach to medical practice that is indeed importantly different from the alternatives.


We can have a more productive debate about the value of EBM by being clearer about the nature of EBM and its relationship to alternative approaches to medicine.