Bioethics Blogs

Speculation, Certainty and the Diagnostic Illusory: The Tricorder and the Deathless Man by Thierry Jutel

In the paragraphs which follow, we will be discussing the ways in which two pieces of speculative fiction, the science fiction film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and the novel The Tiger’s Wife use diagnostic and prognostic certainty as part of their creative narratives. In both cases, the confidence vested in the diagnosis and its outcome is contrasted to the “diagnostic illusory” of contemporary medicine.

Even while diagnosis is medicine’s primary classification tool, it is far less circumscribed than diagnostic taxonomies suggest, as well as the power afforded those who diagnose. Even very material conditions have porous boundaries (Jutel 2013) which muddy the waters in a system that is based on tidy categories. Sarah Nettleton and her colleagues have developed the term “diagnostic illusory” to describe how medicine invests in generalisation as a way of understanding disease. In the diagnostic illusory, for the cases that resists classification, or perturb a diagnostic category, one turns to ever-more sophisticated forms of technology, with the belief that it’s just a matter of time before the explanation will become clear, and the diagnosis justified. Nettleton and her colleagues raise the idea of “illusory” to highlight the “ambiguities and nuanced complexities associated with the biomedical imperative to name and classify” (Nettleton, Kitzinger, and Kitzinger 2014).

In this short essay, we will explore how two speculative texts represent diagnosis, highlighting through their respectively futuristic and supernatural approaches the yearnings of contemporary medicine, and the society it serves, for diagnostic certainty.


Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the Tricorder

In the science fiction epic Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy 1986), the Starship Enterprise and its crew have come back to planet earth in 1986 to save the humpback whale from extinction and by extension, to save planet earth from destruction in the future.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.