The Philosophy of Epidemiology

December 12, 2011 - December 13, 2011
University of Johannesburg

South Africa

Keynote speakers:

Christopher Hitchcock
California Institute of Technology
Alfredo Morabia
Columbia University
John Worrall
London School of Economics
Richard Wright
Illinois Institute of Technology

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Epidemiology is attracting increasing philosophical attention, even though most philosophers know very little about epidemiology, and philosophy of epidemiology is not yet a part of regular philosophy of science curricula. Epidemiology rewards philosophical study for several reasons, but particularly because it is such a poor fit for standard philosophical pictures of science. These pictures tend to place emphasis on explanatory theories and experiment as central features of science, yet neither is central to epidemiology. This fact prompts a recasting of the entire realism debate in philosophy of science, and means that many well-known positions on the nature of science do not apply to epidemiology.

The purpose of this conference is to offer an opportunity to philosophers of science to engage with epidemiology, and to encourage epidemiologists, statisticians, lawyers, social scientists, and others with relevant interests to explore the philosophical aspects of the discipline further. Epidemiology attracts philosophical attention because epidemiologists deal explicitly with conceptual questions to a greater extent than scientists in many other disciplines. Working epidemiologists devote time and energy to publishing papers on the nature of causation, methods of causal inference, and the nature and role of statistical significance testing, for example. Epidemiology also raises important questions about the relation between general (population) and singular (individual) causal claims, nowhere more clearly than in the context of litigation. Epidemiology is often central to litigation because it deals with phenomena whose underlying mechanisms are not well understood. Thus there are circumstances where epidemiology provides the only evidence available to prove or disprove a causal link between wrong and harm. However, epidemiologists deal in generalities, and litigants are individuals (or classes thereof). It is both a philosophical and a legal question how evidence for a general causal claim relates to the attempt to prove singular causal claims.

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December 12, 2011, 2:00pm SAST

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