Can Robots Do Epidemiology? Machine Learning, Causal Inference, and Predicting the Outcomes of Public Health Interventions

Philosophy and Technology 35 (1):1-22 (2022)


This paper argues that machine learning 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” 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, but associations and classification schema are more plausibly discovered 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.

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Author Profiles

Alex Broadbent
University of Johannesburg

References found in this work

Thinking, Fast and Slow.Daniel Kahneman - 2011 - New York: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.Nelson Goodman - 1955 - Harvard University Press.
Transparency in Complex Computational Systems.Kathleen A. Creel - 2020 - Philosophy of Science 87 (4):568-589.
Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.Nelson Goodman - 1955 - Philosophy 31 (118):268-269.

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