I had already had a chance to rant against evidence-based educational research which leads to replacement individual studies by faceless statistics. It is a sensitive issue for me since I am writing a book based entirely on exceptional individual cases. But today I touch on a similar and earlier development in medical research: indidual cases disappeared from medical literature in 1960-s, being replaced be statistics. And not everyone is happy with that.
I quote David Corfield and Darian Leader (Chapter 2 of ‘Why do people get ill?’):
It was quite shocking after wading through pages and pages of mathematical equations used in statistical calculations, with not one single piece of reported speech from a patient, to come upon Swiss conference proceedings where there wasn’t a single graph, chart or number in sight, just detailed case reports of individual patients. Such major differences in scientific style almost guarantee that the Swiss research would not be taken seriously, if read at all, by an Anglo-American audience. In a recent survey of psychosomatic literature on the popular topic of pain research in the field’s premier journal ‘Psychosomatic Medicine’, it was found that after the publication of many case studies in the 40s, and a handful in the 50s and early 60s, not a single clinical case had been published.
In most Anglo-American contexts, it is the production of statistics that matters more than the individual patient and the listening process. In a recent cardiology study, we can read that “One patient (0.7%) developed somatic contraindications for a heart transplantation”, but apart from knowing that they were 0.7%, we learn nothing more. Not who the patient was, not what they said, nor what the somatic contraindications were. It reminds us of the ironic comment made by a doctor in the mid-50s : “The patient recovered and lived to be a statistic in a published report”. The philosopher Henri Bergson once said that it is unlikely that anyone analysing thousands of buckets of water from the ocean will ever learn very much about the tides.