Are medical errors responsible for as many deaths as believed; how easy is it to predict the future of healthcare; and why are so few doctors embracing scientific research? This month's column examines these issues

We love speculating about the future, and the fact that most of it turns out to be utterly, wildly wrong seems not to matter.

Last year the Royal Society invited Professor Roy Porter, doyen of medical historians, to deliver its annual Wilkins lecture, now published in edited form in Interdisciplinary Reviews (26:

35-42). 'Medical futures' was the title of Professor Porter's talk. It included a selection of the some of the predictions of various sages through the ages.

One the earlier of those quoted was also one of the more accurate. Sir Francis Bacon (1659) foresaw scientific research as promoting an increase in muscular strength, the mitigation of pain, the retardation of ageing, the prolongation of life and the conquest of many incurable diseases. Some of these things may have been a few centuries in coming - but Sir Francis at least was pretty much on target.

Which is more than can be said for William Sargant, one of the doctors who helped to establish the value of physical treatments in psychiatry. In the 1960s, he predicted that developments in drug therapy would lead to the disappearance of mental illness by the end of the century.

Coming up with an error of the opposite kind we have Sir John Erichsen, a surgeon at London's University College Hospital in the late 19th century. He maintained that 'the abdomen, the chest and [the] brain will for ever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon'.

My favourite, not quoted by Professor Porter, is more recent: in 1971, Nobel prizewinning immunologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet wrote: 'I do not expect conventional benefits to medicine or technology from biological research in the future. If they should arise they can be accepted as bonuses but need not be sought.'

Tell that to the chaps at the genome project.