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On the political dimension of scientific evidence


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Presentation at PPA seminar series, University of Amsterdam

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On the political dimension of scientific evidence

  1. 1. On the political dimension of scientific evidence Federica Russo Philosophy | Humanities | Amsterdam | @federicarusso
  2. 2. Philosophy of science. And the polis. 2
  3. 3. “The congenital weakness of the sociology of science is its propensity to look for obvious stated political motives and interests in one of the places, the laboratories, where sources of fresh politics as yet unrecognized as such are emerging. If by politics you mean elections and law, Pasteur […] was not driven by political interests […]. Thus his science is protected from enquiry and the myth of the autonomy of science is saved. If by politics you mean to be the spokesman of the forces you mould society with and of which you are the only credible and legitimate authority, then Pasteur is a fully political man. Indeed, he endows himself with one of the most striking fresh sources of power ever.” Latour, Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world, 1982 3
  4. 4. An argument from philosophy of science, rather than sociology Whether and how notions and concepts of evidence, knowledge, or certainty can contribute to a better making and understanding of science 4
  5. 5. Overview Why bothering? The assessment of carcinogenicity of glyphosate and red meat What evidence? Evidential pluralism: correlations, mechanism, and reinforced concrete Beyond evidence quarrels Questions about objective knowledge and truth 5
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  8. 8. SPRAY IT – IT IS SAFE 8
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  10. 10. [Any conflict to declare?] It’s not just correlations. We’ve got mechanisms. The debate isn’t settled. What should we do? 10
  11. 11. DON’T EAT THAT STUFF 11
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  13. 13. Epidemiological facts or individual risk? How much of that stuff we eat today? And how much of that stuff did we use to eat? 13
  15. 15. Causality and evidence C causes E Red meat consumption causes cancer Breathing glyphosate causes cancer Statins lower cholesterol Exercising reduces cardiovascular disease … How do we know that? What makes a causal claim true /versus/ What evidence supports a causal claim 15
  16. 16. Evidential pluralism To establish a causal claim we need multiple sources of evidence: That C makes a difference to E Correlations, counterfactuals, … That C produces E Mechanisms, processes, … Russo and Williamson, Interpreting causality in the health sciences, ISPS 2007 Epistemic causality and evidence-based medicine. HPLS 2011 Clarke et al, The evidence that evidence-based medicine omits, Preventive Medicine 2013 Mechanisms and the evidence hierarchy, Topoi 2014 16
  17. 17. Disambiguation Mechanistic evidence / difference-making evidence Evidence of … Evidence-gathering methods are not evidence Do RCTs suffice? Do lab experiments suffice? Illari, Disambiguating the Russo-Williamson Thesis, ISPS 2011
  18. 18. What mechanisms? What mechanism ought to support a causal claim? Fully-known? Confirmed? Plausible? Gillies, The Russo-Williamson thesis and the question of whether smoking causes heart disease, in Causality in the Sciences. 2011
  19. 19. “[…] In male CD-1 mice, glyphosate induced a positive trend in the incidence of a rare tumour, renal tubule carcinoma. A second study reported a positive trend for haemangiosarcoma in male mice. Glyphosate increased pancreatic islet-cell adenoma in male rats in two studies. A glyphosate formulation promoted skin tumours in an initiation-promotion study in mice. Glyphosate has been detected in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption. […]” 19
  20. 20. The analogy of reinforced concrete Evidence: integration, not substitution Integration helps tackle more problems Difference making and mechanisms help each other with their respective weaknesses Difference making helps with masking Mechanisms helps with confounding
  21. 21. Assess evidence of difference- making Assess evidence of mechanism Assess the integration of your total evidence
  22. 22. Generic vs single-case Generic causal claim are about epidemiological facts Population-level, repeatable “ […]Positive associations were seen in cohort studies and population-based case- control studies between consumption of red meat and cancers of the pancreas and the prostate […], and between consumption of processed meat and cancer of the stomach. […]” Single-case causal claims happens once in time and space E.g., individual diagnosis and prognosis Russo and Williamson, Generic vs. single-case causality. The case of autopsy. EJPS 2011 22
  23. 23. Mixed aetiology Disease causation is not just a bio-chemical fact Social factors participate in the whole process of disease development Changes in dietary habits and lifestyles are key The whole life world matters E.g.: fast food hypothesis, exposure to asbestos Kelly et al, The integration of social, behavioural, and biological mechanisms in models of pathogenesis, Perspect. Biol. Med. 2014 23
  24. 24. Knowledge and action How much do we need to know before acting? Ban glyphosate? Anti-inflammatory drugs (Aulin and Mesulid)? What can we learn from history of science? The Semmelweis case: puerperal fever and hand washing 24
  26. 26. Evidence, knowledge, and objective truths Scientific knowledge and science dissemination 26
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  29. 29. We made progress in phil sci Evidence, causation, knowledge Benefits cross the borders of the discipline Integration of philosophical theorising in real, concrete situations IARC on assessment of carcinogenicity NICE on preparation of guidelines for public health ZINL on regulation of health care 29
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