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Going big by going small: trade-offs in microbiome explanations of cancer

Parke, Emily C. and Plutynski, Anya (2022) Going big by going small: trade-offs in microbiome explanations of cancer. [Preprint]

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Abstract

Microbial factors have been implicated in cancer risk, disease progression, treatment and prevention. The key word, however, is “implicated.” Our aim in this paper is to map out some of the tensions between competing methods, goals, and standards of evidence in cancer research with respect to the causal role of microbial factors. We discuss an array of pragmatic and epistemic trade-offs in this research area: prioritizing coarse-grained versus fine-grained explanations of the roles of microbiota in cancer; explaining general versus specific cancer targets; studying model organisms versus human patients; and understanding and explaining cancer versus developing diagnostic tools and treatments. In light of these trade-offs and the distinctive complexity and heterogeneity on both sides of the microbiome-cancer relationship, we suggest that it would be more productive and intellectually honest to frame much of this work, at least currently, in terms of generating causal hypotheses to investigate further. Claims of established causal connections between the microbiome and cancer are in many cases overstated. We also discuss the value of “black boxing” microbial causal variables in this research context and draw some general cautionary lessons for ongoing discussions of microbiomes and cancer.


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Parke, Emily C.e.parke@auckland.ac.nz0000-0002-1543-9847
Plutynski, Anyaaplutyns@wustl.edu
Additional Information: Forthcoming in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (accepted Dec. 2022).
Keywords: microbiome, cancer, causal explanation, trade-offs
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Causation
Specific Sciences > Medicine
Depositing User: Emily Parke
Date Deposited: 22 Dec 2022 17:50
Last Modified: 22 Dec 2022 17:50
Item ID: 21579
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Causation
Specific Sciences > Medicine
Date: December 2022
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/21579

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