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JAMA 100 Years Ago
February 9, 2005


JAMA. 2005;293(6):752. doi:10.1001/jama.293.6.752-a

The physician is thoroughly conversant with the fact that observation is apt to be erroneous, and that the patient’s story must often be liberally interpreted in accordance with other facts observed. Some interesting experiments are reported in the Berlin Blätter für Volksgesundheitspflege. Dr. L. W. Stern of Breslau examined twenty-four pupils concerning the details of an assembly room in which the class had met eight days before. The questions concerned the number of windows and doors, whether or not the windows were barred, etc. The results showed that every fifth statement was positively false; but that statements under oath were slightly more accurate. For example, the percentage of error was from 18 to 27 per cent. in ordinary statements, and from 8 to 10 per cent. under oath. In another experiment, a man entered the room, spoke to the instructor, handed him a manuscript, asked permission to consult a case of books in the room; took from this case a book which he read for five minutes, left the room with the book in his possession, etc. Eight days later, the spectators were asked to describe the whole proceeding. The positive statements were one-fourth false; statements as to what was said, one third false. Dr. Stern says that the reports taken together formed “such a chaos of contradictory statements that if a judge had merely these statements to form an opinion by he could not possibly reach any conclusion.” These experiments are interesting. We have before referred to a similar experiment in which a quarrel took place in a clinical amphitheater, and the students were examined concerning the details some days afterward. These results lend emphasis to the necessity for careful consideration of all facts in diagnosis, and the danger of placing too great dependence on any one statement by the patient which may be the crucial point of any decision.

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