Acknowledgment of uncertainty: a fundamental means to ensure scientific and ethical validity in clinical research

Curr Oncol Rep. 2001 Sep;3(5):389-95. doi: 10.1007/s11912-001-0024-5.


Recognition of the importance of uncertainty in the design of randomized, controlled trials (RCT) has reached the status of a principle. The "uncertainty principle," or less ambiguously, equipoise, holds that a patient should be enrolled in an RCT only if there is substantial uncertainty about which of the trial treatments would benefit the patient most. In fact, the "uncertainty principle" addresses the most important issue of a clinical trial--the choice of an adequate comparative control. Studies in which intervention and control group are believed to be non-equivalent violate the uncertainty principle. Therefore, one would expect that both editors and authors would be particularly careful to include a statement concerning prior beliefs of the investigator(s) about the uncertainty of the treatments that are reported. However, we found no evidence of such a policy in the randomized, controlled trials we examined. We also show that there is a predictable relationship between the uncertainty principle, that is, the moral principle upon which trials are based, and the ultimate outcomes of clinical trials. We postulate that about 50% of innovations are successful, leading to the conclusion that preserving the ethics of clinical research may be the best investment strategy available.

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Professional*
  • Humans
  • Probability*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*