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Specificity of association in epidemiology

Blanchard, Thomas (2022) Specificity of association in epidemiology. Synthese, 200.

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Abstract

The epidemiologist Bradford Hill famously argued that in epidemiology, specificity of
association (roughly, the fact that an environmental or behavioral risk factor is associ-
ated with just one or at most a few medical outcomes) is strong evidence of causation.
Prominent epidemiologists have dismissed Hill’s claim on the ground that it relies
on a dubious ‘one-cause one effect’ model of disease causation. The paper examines
this methodological controversy, and argues that specificity considerations do have a
useful role to play in causal inference in epidemiology. More precisely, I argue that
specificity considerations help solve a pervasive inferential problem in contemporary
epidemiology: the problem of determining whether an exposure-outcome correlation
might be due to confounding by a social factor. This examination of specificity has
interesting consequences for our understanding of the methodology of epidemiology.
It highlights how the methodology of epidemiology relies on local tools designed to
address specific inference problems peculiar to the discipline, and shows that obser-
vational causal inference in epidemiology can proceed with little prior knowledge of
the causal structure of the phenomenon investigated. I also argue that specificity of
association cannot (despite claims to the contrary) be entirely explained in terms of
Woodward’s well-known concept of “one-to-one” causal specificity. This is because
specificity as understood by epidemiologists depends on whether an exposure (or
outcome) is associated with a ‘heterogeneous’ set of variables. This dimension of het-
erogeneity is not captured in Woodward’s notion, but is crucial for understanding the
evidential import of specificity of association.


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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Blanchard, Thomastblancha@uni-koeln.de0000-0001-5002-7517
Keywords: Specificity of Association; Epidemiology; Causal Specificity; Causal Inference;
Subjects: General Issues > Causation
Specific Sciences > Medicine > Epidemiology
General Issues > Experimentation
General Issues > Explanation
Specific Sciences > Medicine
Depositing User: Thomas Blanchard
Date Deposited: 26 May 2023 19:55
Last Modified: 26 May 2023 19:55
Item ID: 22141
Journal or Publication Title: Synthese
Publisher: Springer
Official URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11229-0...
DOI or Unique Handle: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-022-03944-z
Subjects: General Issues > Causation
Specific Sciences > Medicine > Epidemiology
General Issues > Experimentation
General Issues > Explanation
Specific Sciences > Medicine
Date: 15 November 2022
Volume: 200
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/22141

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