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Risk relativism and physical law
  1. Alex Broadbent
  1. Correspondence to Dr Alex Broadbent, Department of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, PO Box 524, Auckland Park, Gauteng 2006, Republic of South Africa; abbroadbent{at}


In two 1959 papers, one coauthored, Jerome Cornfield asserts that ‘relative’ measures are more useful for causal inference while ‘absolute’ measures are more useful for public health purposes. In one of these papers (the single-authored one), he asks how epidemiology should respond to the fact that its domain is not a highly ‘articulated’ one—it is not susceptible to being subsumed under general laws. What is the connection between these issues? There has recently been some backlash against ‘risk relativism’, and Charles Poole has recently dismantled the mathematical argument for the first claim. However the problem with ‘Cornfield's Principle’ seems to go much deeper. The whole attempt to partition measures into absolute and relative is fundamentally mistaken. Why, then, has it seemed so appealing? Perhaps one reason is the influence that early education in the physical sciences continues to exert on the way epidemiologists think, and their response to the low articulation of their domain of study.

  • Epidemiological methods

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