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Osimani, Barbara (2009): Modus Tollens Probabilized: Deductive and Inductive Methods in Medical Diagnosis. In: MEDIC, Vol. 17: pp. 43-59 [PDF, 240kB]


Medical diagnosis has been traditionally recognized as a privileged field of application for so called probabilistic induction. Consequently, the Bayesian theorem, which mathematically formalizes this form of inference, has been seen as the most adequate tool for quantifying the uncertainty surrounding the diagnosis by providing probabilities of different diagnostic hypotheses, given symptomatic or laboratory data. On the other side, it has also been remarked that differential diagnosis rather works by exclusion, e.g. by modus tollens, i.e. deductively. By drawing on a case history, this paper aims at clarifying some points on the issue. Namely: 1) Medical diagnosis does not represent, strictly speaking, a form of induction, but a type, of what in Peircean terms should be called ‘abduction’ (identifying a case as the token of a specific type); 2) in performing the single diagnostic steps, however, different inferential methods are used for both inductive and deductive nature: modus tollens, hypothetical-deductive method, abduction; 3) Bayes’ theorem is a probabilized form of abduction which uses mathematics in order to justify the degree of confidence which can be entertained on a hypothesis given the available evidence; 4) although theoretically irreconcilable, in practice, both the hypothetical- deductive method and the Bayesian one, are used in the same diagnosis with no serious compromise for its correctness; 5) Medical diagnosis, especially differential diagnosis, also uses a kind of “probabilistic modus tollens”, in that, signs (symptoms or laboratory data) are taken as strong evidence for a given hypothesis not to be true: the focus is not on hypothesis confirmation, but instead on its refutation [Pr (¬ H/E1, E2, …, En)]. Especially at the beginning of a complicated case, odds are between the hypothesis that is potentially being excluded and a vague “other”. This procedure has the advantage of providing a clue of what evidence to look for and to eventually reduce the set of candidate hypotheses if conclusive negative evidence is found. 6) Bayes’ theorem in the hypothesis-confirmation form can more faithfully, although idealistically, represent the medical diagnosis when the diagnostic itinerary has come to a reduced set of plausible hypotheses after a process of progressive elimination of candidate hypotheses; 7) Bayes’ theorem is however indispensable in the case of litigation in order to assess doctor’s responsibility for medical error by taking into account the weight of the evidence at his disposal.

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