Science by itself not the answer

Sir Peter Gluckman gives his address at the University of Otago graduation ceremony in the...
Sir Peter Gluckman gives his address at the University of Otago graduation ceremony in the Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday. Photos by Gerard O'Brien.
Newly capped graduates at the ceremony.
Newly capped graduates at the ceremony.

Health professionals must avoid excessive pride in scientific and professional matters, and science alone cannot make decisions on policy matters, or in medicine, Prof Peter Gluckman says.

Prof Gluckman, a University of Otago medical graduate and medical researcher, was addressing about 270 graduates, mainly in medicine and medical laboratory science, at an Otago graduation ceremony at the weekend.

He was also awarded an honorary doctorate of science at the 1pm ceremony, which was the first of two Otago University ceremonies held at the Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday.

The processes of science were designed to develop ''relatively reliable knowledge about the natural, built and social worlds''.

The only other sources of knowledge were ultimately those of ''belief or dogma'' but science alone could not create policy decisions or in medicine or public health, he warned.

And science itself was ''never complete''.

An objective test might provide a diagnosis, but did not deal with many aspects of the relative benefits and risks of different approaches, or with ''the beliefs, bias and context of a patient or yourself''.

Values determined the importance of the ''inevitable inductive gaps in the evidence''.

''You will soon be no strangers to this dilemma - is one more test necessary? Too few and you have a risk of misdiagnosis, too many and health costs soar as defensive medicine becomes excessive.''

Health professionals needed to be honest with patients about '' what components are based on knowledge'' and what were ''values based''.

''Both as a health professional and as a graduate of this university, you have obligations to assist society, as well as healing the sick,'' he said.

And in another graduation address, at 4pm, Otago School of Dentistry dean Prof Gregory Seymour reminded graduates of their obligation, as the future of their profession, to ''see further'', and to extend the knowledge and clinical practice of their respective professions.

He told about 280 graduates, mainly in dentistry and physiotherapy, that it had been often stated that knowledge was doubling every two and a-half years.

Half of what was known would be ''obsolete'' in five years, but graduates had prepared themselves for ''a lifetime of learning''.

Otago University was ''one of the world's great universities'' and graduates could be confident they ''could not have received a better education anywhere else in the world''.

Graduates had received backing from their respective families, but society as a whole, and especially Dunedin, as a city, had also supported them and ''taken pride in your achievements''.

Society now expected more of health science graduates, but was also ''less tolerant of any unethical behaviour'', he said.

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