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Causation in epidemiology
  1. M Parascandola,
  2. D L Weed
  1. Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, Office of Preventive Oncology, National Cancer Institute, Executive Plaza South, Suite T-41, 6120 Executive Blvd, MSC 7105, Bethesda, MD 20892–7105, USA
  1. Dr Parascandola (paramark{at}


Causation is an essential concept in epidemiology, yet there is no single, clearly articulated definition for the discipline. From a systematic review of the literature, five categories can be delineated: production, necessary and sufficient, sufficient-component, counterfactual, and probabilistic. Strengths and weaknesses of these categories are examined in terms of proposed characteristics of a useful scientific definition of causation: it must be specific enough to distinguish causation from mere correlation, but not so narrow as to eliminate apparent causal phenomena from consideration. Two categories—production and counterfactual—are present in any definition of causation but are not themselves sufficient as definitions. The necessary and sufficient cause definition assumes that all causes are deterministic. The sufficient-component cause definition attempts to explain probabilistic phenomena via unknown component causes. Thus, on both of these views, heavy smoking can be cited as a cause of lung cancer only when the existence of unknown deterministic variables is assumed. The probabilistic definition, however, avoids these assumptions and appears to best fit the characteristics of a useful definition of causation. It is also concluded that the probabilistic definition is consistent with scientific and public health goals of epidemiology. In debates in the literature over these goals, proponents of epidemiology as pure science tend to favour a narrower deterministic notion of causation models while proponents of epidemiology as public health tend to favour a probabilistic view. The authors argue that a single definition of causation for the discipline should be and is consistent with both of these aims. It is concluded that a counterfactually-based probabilistic definition is more amenable to the quantitative tools of epidemiology, is consistent with both deterministic and probabilistic phenomena, and serves equally well for the acquisition and the application of scientific knowledge.

  • causality
  • counterfactual
  • philosophy

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  • Funding: none.

  • Conflicts of interest: none.

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