Chapter

Inferring causation in epidemiology: Mechanisms, black boxes, and contrasts

Alex Broadbent

in Causality in the Sciences

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199574131
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191728921 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199574131.003.0003
Inferring causation in epidemiology: Mechanisms, black boxes, and contrasts

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This chapter explores the idea that causal inference is warranted if and only if the mechanism underlying the inferred causal association is identified. This mechanistic stance is discernible in the epidemiological literature, and in the strategies adopted by epidemiologists seeking to establish causal hypotheses. But the exact opposite methodology is also discernible, the black box stance, which asserts that epidemiologists can and should make causal inferences on the basis of their evidence, without worrying about the mechanisms that might underlie their hypotheses. This chapter argues that the mechanistic stance is indeed a bad methodology for causal inference. However, this chapter detaches and defends a mechanistic interpretation of causal generalisations in epidemiology as existence claims about underlying mechanisms.

Keywords: causality; causation; causal inference; epidemiology; contrast; risk factor; mechanism

Chapter.  11714 words. 

Subjects: Logic

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