First do no harm . . . As Robin Hanson has said, what does that mean? In contrast, the rule illustrated by this story, from Bryan Castañeda, who works for a Los Angeles law firm, is quite clear:
At the old firm I used to work at, I was talking to one of the senior attorneys and the topic of medical malpractice cases came up. He said he avoids them. Why, I asked. He said — I’m paraphrasing here — “Because you won’t find a doctor who will testify against another doctor in open court. They may advise you in private, ‘Oh yeah, so-and-so definitely screwed up,’ but you won’t get them to say that on the stand. They all protect each other.”
Judging by this story, if your doctor makes a mistake, the only person who will suffer consequences is you. Thank heavens the rest of us have more power than ever before. A recent survey of doctors found that “more than a 10th (11.3%) admitted to telling patients something that was not true.” The survey did not ask about lies of omission (when silence is misleading); unwillingness to testify that someone else made a mistake is that sort of lie. The survey also showed that doctors (at least, those who took the survey) have a self-serving interpretation of the term not true. Although only about 10% said they had said something “that was not true” — meaning something that they knew wasn’t true — “more than half had described a patient’s prognosis more optimistically than warranted.” Apparently they consider such descriptions not instances of “not true”.
In Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs described two moral systems (lists of rules/values): The guardian syndrome and the commercial syndrome. In certain areas of life (e.g., military), the guardian syndrome prevailed; in other areas (e.g., small business), the commercial syndrome prevailed. Loyalty (e.g., “never testify against a fellow doctor”) is a guardian value — indeed, the main guardian value. In contrast, honesty is the main commercial value. Jacobs said that the two syndromes corresponded to two ways of making a living: taking and trading. Doctors do not represent themselves as predatory (= taking). But, according to Jacobs, this sort of rule (“never testify against a fellow doctor”) puts them squarely in that camp.
I asked Jim Jacobs, one of Jane Jacobs’s sons, for comment. He replied:
Exactly right. Jane experienced this herself, unfortunately. It’s really a major problem. I see the very same behavior among medical researchers too.