Data agnosticism in medical emergencies: a tale from the past – David Teira (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia)

March 11, 2021 @ 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm
Helen Curry

Historians of statistics have mostly focused on the algorithms for data analysis in clinical trials. We do not know much yet on the history of those data: for instance, how the data should be formatted to be considered credible. Our claim in this paper is that without prior agreement on what counts as proper data, not even 100 years of hindsight will close a controversy on a medical treatment. Our case study will be Jaime Ferrán’s three submissions to the Prix Bréant, an award of the French Academy of Sciences to incentivize research on cholera. Ferrán, a Spanish independent physician, claimed to have discovered a vaccine in 1884. The following year, he tried it on thousands of patients during the cholera outburst in Valencia. The results of his trial sparked a controversy in Spain and abroad on the vaccine’s efficacy, that continues today. Some historians consider Ferrán’s experiments persuasive enough and accuse the Academy of chauvinism for not awarding him the Breant. Our counterfactual question is: what sort of data would have closed the debate? Drawing on archival records of the award, we suggest that Ferrán failed to format his data in a way that conformed to the emerging standards for data presentation at the Academy. This led the Bréant jury to remain agnostic about Ferrán’s vaccine efficacy. As the controversy on Ferrán’s vaccine shows, this epistemic agnosticism is rarely appreciated. Furthermore, with an unfolding emergency, it is often considered morally indefensible. Yet, our lack of agreement on Ferrán suggests that, without a prior agreement on what counts as proper data, no amount of moralizing will bring about a consensus on experimental outcomes.

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