Uncertainty and the inconvenient facts of diagnosis
journal contributionposted on 22.06.2021, 02:15 by Annemarie Jutel
One common contemporary usage of the term “diagnostic uncertainty” is to refer to cases for which a diagnosis is not, or cannot, be applied to the presenting case. This is a paradoxical usage, as the absence of diagnosis is often as close to a certainty as can be a human judgement. What makes this sociologically interesting is that it represents an “epistemic defence,” or a means of accounting for a failure of medicine's explanatory system. This system is based on diagnosis, or the classification of individual complaints into recognizable diagnostic categories. Diagnosis is pivotal to medicine's epistemic setting, for it purports to explain illness via diagnosis, and yet is not always able to do so. This essay reviews this paradoxical use, and juxtaposes it to historical explanations for non-diagnosable illnesses. It demonstrates how representing non-diagnosis as uncertainty protects the epistemic setting by positioning the failure to locate a diagnosis in the individual, rather than in the medical paradigm.