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Magic bullets

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Some medical interventions – such as arsphenamine, penicillin, and insulin – are good examples of ‘magic bullets’. The magic bullet model of medical interventions represents two principles: specificity and effectiveness. The magic bullet model gained currency in the mid-20th century with the introduction of antibiotics and insulin. However, scientists have begun to recognize the complexity of many pathophysiological mechanisms, and philosophers have begun to note what such complexity entails. I argue that once we appreciate the complexity of physiological mechanisms, the expectation of effectiveness and specificity ought to be mitigated. The expectation that drugs can intervene on one or few micro-level targets and thereby bring about an effect that is both clinically significant and symptomatically specific is, for many of our contemporary medical interventions, unfounded. Nevertheless, the magic bullet model is a good normative ideal for medical interventions, and the low effectiveness of many contemporary medical interventions can be understood in virtue of the fact that these interventions and their target diseases do not satisfy the principles of the magic bullet model.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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