This paper argues that machine learning (ML) and epidemiology are on collision course over causation. The discipline of epidemiology lays great emphasis on causation, while ML research does not. Some epidemiologists have proposed imposing what amounts to a causal constraint on ML in epidemiology, requiring it either to engage in causal inference or restrict itself to mere projection. We whittle down the issues to the question of whether causal knowledge is necessary for underwriting predictions about the outcomes of public health interventions. While there is great plausibility to the idea that it is, conviction that something is impossible does not by itself motivate a constraint to forbid trying. We disambiguate the possible motivations for such a constraint into definitional, metaphysical, epistemological, and pragmatic considerations and argue that “Proceed with caution” (rather than “Stop!”) is the outcome of each. We then argue that there are positive reasons to proceed, albeit cautiously. Causal inference enforces existing classification schema prior to the testing of associational claims (causal or otherwise), but associations and classification schema are more plausibly discovered (rather than tested or justified) in a back-and-forth process of gaining reflective equilibrium. ML instantiates this kind of process, we argue, and thus offers the welcome prospect of uncovering meaningful new concepts in epidemiology and public health—provided it is not causally constrained.
Broadbent, A., & Grote, T. (2022). Can Robots Do Epidemiology? Machine Learning, Causal Inference, and Predicting the Outcomes of Public Health Interventions. Philosophy & Technology, 35(1), Article 14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-022-00509-3
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.