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The real ecological fallacy: epidemiology and global climate change


Prompted by my participation in the People's Climate March held in New York City on 21 September 2014, as part of the ‘Harvard Divest’ contingent, in this brief essay I reflect on the late 20th century development of—and debates over—the necessity of ecological thinking in epidemiology, and also the still limited engagement of our field with work on the health impact of global climate change. Revisiting critiques about the damaging influence of methodological individualism on our field, I extend critique of the still influential notion of ‘ecological fallacy,’ including its wilful disregard for ecology itself as being pertinent to people's ways of living—and dying. Indeed, the real ‘ecological fallacy’ is to think epidemiologists or others could ever understand the people's health except in societal and ecological, and hence historical, context. I conclude by urging all of us, as members of the broader scientific community, whether or not we directly study the health impacts of the planetary emergency of global climate change, to step up by joining the call for universities to divest from fossil fuels.


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