America Tour: Attribution, prediction, and the causal interpretation problem in epidemiology

Next week I’ll be visiting America to talk in Pittsburgh, Richmond, and twice at Tufts. I do not expect audience overlap so I’ll give the same talk in all venues, with adjustments for audience depending on whether it’s primarily philosophers or epidemiologists I’m talking to. The abstract is below. I haven’t got a written version of the paper that I can share yet but would of course welcome comments at this stage.


Attribution, prediction, and the causal interpretation problem in epidemiology

In contemporary epidemiology, there is a movement, part theoretical and part pedagogical, attempting to discipline and clarify causal thinking. I refer to this movement as the Potential Outcomes Aproach (POA). It draws inspiration from the work of Donald Ruben and, more recently, Judea Pearl, among others. It is most easily recognized by its use of Directed Acycylic Graphs (DAGs) to describe causal situations, but DAGs are not the conceptual basis of the POA in epidemiology. The conceptual basis (as I have argued elsewhere) is a commitment to the view that the hallmark of a meaningful causal claim is that they can be used to make predictions about hypothetical scenarios. Elsewhere I have argued that this commitment is problematic (notwithstanding the clear connections with counterfactual, contrastive and interventionist views in philosophy). In this paper I take a more constructive approach, seeking to address the problem that troubles advocates of the POA. This is the causal interpretation problem (CIP). We can calculate various quantities that are supposed to be measures of causal strength, but it is not always clear how to interpret these quantities. Measures of attributability are most troublesome here, and these are the measures on which POA advocates focus. What does it mean, they ask, to say that a certain fraction of population risk of mortality is attributable to obesity? The pre-POA textbook answer is that, if obesity were reduced, mortality would be correspondingly lower. But this is not obviously true, because there are methods for reducing obesity (smoking, cholera infection) which will not reduce mortality. In general, say the POA advocates, a measure of attributability tells us next to nothing about the likely effect of any proposed public health intervention, rendering these measures useless, and so, for epidemiological purposes, meaningless. In this paper I ask whether there is a way to address and resolve the causal interpretation problem without resorting to the extreme view that a meaningful causal claim must always support predictions in hypothetical scenarios. I also seek connections with the notorious debates about heritability.

A Tale of Two Papers

I’m on my way back from the World Epi Congress in Anchorage, where causation and causal inference have been central topics of discussion. I wrote previously about a paper (Hernan and Taubman 2008) suggesting that obesity is not a cause of mortality. There is another, more recent paper published in July of this year, suggesting, more or less, that race is not a cause of health outcomes – or at least that it’s not a cause that can feature in causal models (Vanderweele and Robinson 2014). I can’t do justice to the paper here, of course, but I think this is a fair, if crude, summary of the strategy.

This paper is an interesting comparator for the 2008 obesity paper (Hernan and Taubman 2008). It shares the idea that there is a close link between (a) what can be humanly intervened on, (b) what counterfactuals we can entertain, and (c) what causes we can meaningfully talk about. This is a radical view about causation, much stronger than any position held by any contemporary philosopher of whom I’m aware. Philosophers who do think that agency or intervention are central to the concept of causation treat the interventions as in-principle ones, not things humans could actually do.

Yet feasibility of manipulating a variable really does seem to be a driver in this literature. In the paper on race, the authors consider what variables form the subject of humanly possible interventions, and suggest that rather than ask about the effect of race, we should ask what effect is left over after these factors are modelled and controlled for, under the umbrella of socioeconomic status. That sounds to me a bit like saying that we should identify the effects of being female on job candidates’ success by seeing what’s left after controlling for skirt wearing, longer average hair length, shorter stature, higher pitched voice, female names, etc. In other words, it’s very strange indeed. Perhaps it could be useful in some circumstances, but it doesn’t really get us any further with the question of interest – how to quantify the health effects of race, sex, and so forth.

Clearly, there are many conceptual difficulties with this line of reasoning. A good commentary was published with the paper (Glymour and Glymour 2014) which really dismantles the logic of the paper. But I think there are a number of deeper and more pervasive misunderstandings to be cleared up, misunderstandings which help explain why papers like this are being written at all. One is confusion between causation and causal inference; another is confusion between causal inference and particular methods of causal inference; and a third is a mix-up between fitting your methodological tool to your problem, and your problem to your tool.

The last point is particularly striking. What’s so interesting about these two papers (2008 & 2014) is that they seem to be trying to fit research problems to methods, not trying to develop methods to solve problems – even though this is ostensibly what they (at least VW&R 20114) are trying to do. To me, this is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Kuhn’s picture of science, according to which an “exemplary” bit of science occurs, and initiates a “paradigm”, which is a shared set of tools for solving “puzzles”. Kuhn was primarily influenced by physics, but this way of seeing things seems quite apt to explain what is otherwise, from the outside, really quite a remarkable, even bizarre about-turn. Age, sex, race – these are staple objects of epidemiological study as determinants of health; and they don’t fit easily into the potential outcomes paradigm. It’s fascinating to watch the subsequent negotiation. But I’m quite glad that it doesn’t look like epidemiologists are going to stop talking about these things any time soon.


Glymour C and Glymour MR. 2014. ‘Race and Sex Are Causes.’ Epidemiology 25 (4): 488-490.

Hernan M and Taubman S. 2008. ‘Does obesity shorten life? The importance of well-defined interventions to answer causal questions.’ International Journal of Obesity 32: S8–S14.

VanderWeele TJ and Robinson WR. 2014. ‘On the Causal Interpretation of Race in Regressions Adjusting for Confounding and Mediating Variables.’ Epidemiology 25(4): 473-484.