Is the Methodological Axiom of the Potential Outcomes Approach Circular?

Hernan, VanderWeele, and others argue that causation (or a causal question) is well-defined when interventions are well-specified. I take this to be a sort of methodological axiom of the approach.

But what is a well-specified intervention?

Consider an example from Hernan & Taubman’s influential 2008 paper on obesity. In that paper, BMI is shown up as failing to correspond to a well-specified intervention; better-specifed interventions include one hour of strenuous physical exercise per day (among others).

But what kind of exercise? One hour of running? Powerlifting? Yoga? Boxing?

It might matter – it might turn out that, say, boxing and running for an hour a day reduce BMI by similar amounts but that one of them is associated with longer life. Or it might turn out not to matter. Either way, it would be a matter of empirical inquiry.

This has two consequences for the mantra that well-defined causal questions require well-specified interventions.

First, as I’ve pointed out before on this blog, it means that experimental studies don’t necessarily guarantee well-specified interventions. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you know what you are doing. The differences you might think don’t matter might matter: different strains of broccoli might have totally different effects on mortality, etc.

Second, more fundamentally, it means that the whole approach is circular. You need a well-specified intervention for a good empirical inquiry into causes and you need good empirical inquiry into causes to know whether your intervention is well-specified.

To me this seems to be a potentially fatal consequence for the claim that well-defined causal questions require well-specified interventions. For if that were true, we would be trapped in a circle, and could never have any well-specified interventions, and thus no well-defined causal questions either. Therefore either we really are trapped in that circle; or we can have well-defined causal questions, in which case, it is false that these always require well-specified interventions.

This is a line of argument I’m developing at present, inspired in part by Vandebroucke and Pearce’s critique of the “methodological revolution” at the recent WCE 2014 in Anchorage. I would welcome comments.

Causation, prediction, epidemiology – talks coming up

Perhaps an odd thing to do, but I’m posting the abstracts of my two next talks, which will also become papers. Any offers to discuss/read welcome!

The talks will be at Rhodes on 1 and 3 October. I’ll probably deliver a descendant of one of them at the Cambridge Philosophy of Science Seminar on 3 December, and may also give a very short version of 1 at the World Health Summit in Berlin on 22 Oct.

1. Causation and Prediction in Epidemiology

There is an ongoing “methodological revolution” in epidemiology, according to some commentators. The revolution is prompted by the development of a conceptual framework for thinking about causation called the “potential outcomes approach”, and the mathematical apparatus of directed acyclic graphs that accompanies it. But once the mathematics are stripped away, a number of striking assumptions about causation become evident: that a cause is something that makes a difference; that a cause is something that humans can intervene on; and that epidemiologists need nothing more from a notion of causation than picking out events satisfying those two criteria. This is especially remarkable in a discipline that has variously identified factors such as race and sex as determinants of health. In this talk I seek to explain the significance of this movement in epidemiology, separate its insights from its errors, and draw a general philosophical lesson about confusing causal knowledge with predictive knowledge.

2. Causal Selection, Prediction, and Natural Kinds

Causal judgements are typically – invariably – selective. We say that striking the match caused it to light, but we do not mention the presence of oxygen, the ancestry of the striker, the chain of events that led to that particular match being in her hand at that time, and so forth. Philosophers have typically but not universally put this down to the pragmatic difficulty of listing the entire history of the universe every time one wants to make a causal judgement. The selective aspect of causal judgements is typically thought of as picking out causes that are salient for explanatory or moral purposes. A minority, including me, think that selection is more integral than that to the notion of causation. The difficulty with this view is that it seems to make causal facts non-objective, since selective judgements clearly vary with our interests. In this paper I seek to make a case for the inherently selective nature of causal judgements by appealing to two contexts where interest-relativity is clearly inadequate to fully account for selection. Those are the use of causal judgements in formulating predictions, and the relation between causation and natural kinds.

JOB: Post Doc – prediction, philosophy of epidemiology, philosophy of science

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg seeks to appoint a postdoctoral research fellow to work under the supervision of Prof Alex Broadbent. In particular, ideas for work on (1) prediction or (2) philosophy of epidemiology are welcome; but any area of speciality within the philosophy of science broadly construed (including the philosophy of medicine) will be considered. Please send a CV, cover letter, and writing sample to by 26 September 2014. PhD must be in hand. Start date February 2014. Informal inquiries welcome to the same email address.