Clinical reasoning and generics

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 1:1-30 (2024)
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I argue that generic generalizations expressed in language (i.e., “generics”) are apt for good clinical reasoning. I begin by introducing what generics are in language and describe two problems in the use and interpretation of generics: Generics can license inaccurate judgements about the frequency of events or properties within a group (i.e., a problem with the “truth-aptness” of generics) and can facilitate problematic beliefs about social kinds (e.g., prejudice or essentializing). I provide an account of clinical reasoning and describe some features of what I call “good” clinical reasoning. I offer examples of generics in clinical contexts and examine how the two problems with generics (i.e., of truth-aptness and social generics) can be harmful to patients and impair clinical reasoning. However, I ultimately argue that generics are important for good clinical reasoning because they track “conspicuous” features of disease processes (e.g., severe possible outcomes). Further, I argue that prejudicial generics are often irrational to believe, and social generics that are rational to believe need not lead to problematic implicatures about social kinds and can, in principle, instead facilitate meaningfully articulating societal injustices. I then argue that statistical statements, which are tempting alternatives to generics in clinical reasoning, are no better than generics for good clinical reasoning, even with respect to the two problems identified in the use of generics.

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Rajeev Dutta
University of California, Irvine


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