Rationality case study: How to evaluate untested medical procedures?

by jimrandomh1 min read28th May 201119 comments

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Personal Blog

I'm presently on a flight to the rationality minicamp (hooray for free in-flight wifi!), and the passenger next to me has an interesting story to tell. He suffers from chronic renal failure, which has recently worsened, and is on a flight to Beijing to have an experimental stem-cell based treatment performed at Shijiazhuang Kidney Disease Hospital. His United States doctor, predictably, thinks this idea is crazy; the alternatives would be transplantation or dialysis, neither of which seems appealing. He's not particularly clear on the details, and isn't savvy enough to productively research the issue himself or to generate outcome probabilities. My first reflex, upon hearing this story, was to jump on the internet and spend an hour on PubMed.

There are two interesting questions to consider here. The first is: is getting the experimental treatment a good idea or not? And the second is: is attempting to arrive at an answer to the first question a good idea or not? He is already sufficiently committed that a "no" answer would almost certainly be ignored, unless it had an extremely compelling justification behind it.