Scientism, conflicts of interest, and the marginalization of ethics in medical education

Christopher Mayes*, Jane Williams, Ian Kerridge, Wendy Lipworth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Aim: This paper reports on the findings from 6 focus groups conducted with Australian medical students. The focus groups sought students' perspectives on how the influence of commercial interests on medical practice and education could be managed. Method: We conducted 6 focus groups with medical students in New South Wales, Australia. Participants were recruited via student-run medical society and faculty e-mail lists. Forty-nine students from 6 medical schools in New South Wales participated. The research team reflected on the extent to which students uncritically appealed to science in the abstract as a management solution for conflicts of interest. Data analysis was largely inductive, looking for uses of scientific terminology, EBM, and appeals to “science“ in the management of COI and applied theoretical analyses of scientism. Results: The students in our study suggested that science and evidence-based medicine, rather than ethics or professionalism, were the best tools to deal with undue influence and bias. This paper uses philosophy of science literature to critically examine these scientistic appeals to science and EBM as a means of managing the influence of pharmaceutical reps and commercial interests. We argue that a scientistic style of reasoning is reinforced through medical curricula and that students need to be made aware of the epistemological assumptions that underpin science, medicine, and EBM to address the ethical challenges associated with commercialised health care. Conclusion: More work is needed to structure medical curricula to reflect the complexities of practice and realities of science. However, curricula change alone will not sufficiently address issues associated with commercial interests in medicine. For real change to occur, there needs to be a broader social and professional debate about the ways in which medicine and industry interact, and structural changes that restrict or mitigate commercial influences in educational, research, and policy settings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)939-944
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number5
Early online date2017
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • epistemology
  • evidence-based medicine
  • medical education
  • medical ethics
  • practical reasoning
  • science


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