Paper: The C-word, the P-word, and realism in epidemiology

My paper ‘The C-word, the P-word and realism in epidemiology‘ is now available online.


Broadbent, A. The C-word, the P-word and realism in epidemiology. Synthese (2019).


This paper considers an important recent (May 2018) contribution by Miguel Hernán to the ongoing debate about causal inference in epidemiology. Hernán rejects the idea that there is an in-principle epistemic distinction between the results of randomized controlled trials and observational studies: both produce associations which we may be more or less confident interpreting as causal. However, Hernán maintains that trials have a semantic advantage. Observational studies that seek to estimate causal effect risk issuing meaningless statements instead. The POA proposes a solution to this problem: improved restrictions on the meaningful use of causal language, in particular “causal effect”. This paper argues that new restrictions in fact fail their own standards of meaningfulness. The paper portrays the desire for a restrictive definition of causal language as positivistic, and argues that contemporary epidemiology should be more realistic in its approach to causation. In a realist context, restrictions on meaningfulness based on precision of definition are neither helpful nor necessary. Hernán’s favoured approach to causal language is saved from meaninglessness, along with the approaches he rejects.

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