Informed by respect for the simple and the familiar, much of my work probes the charisma of fashion, the magic of publicity, the seduction of attention itself. Seeds of Mortality considers, from the point of view of a patient, the unreality of such regalia as cancer ribbons. A related paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine investigates the use of public-relations techniques in cancer screening. I am a practitioner of close reading and constructive skepticism.
My most recent book, The Nocebo Effect: Overdiagnosis and Its Costs (2015), documents the transformation of normal problems into medical ones, bringing out the risks of this inflationary practice. Ills as well as goods can be shaped from raw materials, packaged, popularized. But once ambiguous ills inherent in human existence are labeled—branded—as a consequence of massive publicity, the experience of having them in the first place can change This is the only study to consider the effects of diagnostic inflation on the diagnosed.
In the spirit of constructive skepticism, many of my recent papers concern the evaluation of evidence. What are we to make of Montaigne’s prescient understanding of the influence of mind on body? How to construe James Lind’s confessions of failure even after he successfully conducted the first clinical trial? What about Freud’s cultivated resemblance to the fantasy hero, Sherlock Holmes? What are we to think of a drug that passes some trials but not others? How does a prior belief in the guilt of the accused act on the evidence against him or her?
As a skeptic I shun the practice of looking down on the past from a position of superior knowledge (or pretended knowledge) and oppose crusaders, ideologues and other fundamentalists for whom all things reduce to one. I try to think non-reductively, as in The Springs of Liberty—a book I wrote as in a dream. If the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows one big thing, I hold with the foxes; hence the variety of writings listed and posted here.
B.A., Columbia University
Ph.D., Columbia University, English Literature
B.A., summa cum laude
1972 – 1973
Columbia University Merit Fellowship
1973 – 1974
High distinction on orals
1979 – 1980
Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities
PEN Award for the Art of the Essay
Ray and Pat Browne Award for a Single Author Study (given by the Popular Culture Association for the best book of 2005)
University of Montana Distinguished Scholar Award
1973 – 1975
Columbia College, Teaching Assistant
1975 – 1976
University of Montana, Instructor
University of Montana, Assistant Professor
1980 – 1986
University of Montana, Associate Professor
1986 – 2016
University of Montana, Professor
2007 – 2016
Director, Liberal Studies Program