Evaluating evidential pluralism in epidemiology: mechanistic evidence in exposome research

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Abstract
In current philosophical discussions on evidence in the medical sciences, epidemiology has been used to exemplify a specific version of evidential pluralism. According to this view, known as the Russo–Williamson Thesis, evidence of both difference-making and mechanisms is produced to make causal claims in the health sciences. In this paper, I present an analysis of data and evidence in epidemiological practice, with a special focus on research on the exposome, and I cast doubt on the extent to which evidential pluralism holds in this case. I start by focusing on the claim that molecular data allows for the production of mechanistic evidence. On the basis of a close look at the ways in which molecular data is used in exposome research, I caution against interpretations in terms of mechanistic evidence. Secondly, I expand my critical remarks on the thesis by addressing the conditions under which data is categorised as evidence in exposome research. I argue that these show that the classification of a dataset as a type of evidence is dependent on the ways in which the data is used. This is in contrast with the approach of evidential pluralism, where evidence is classified in different types on the basis of its intrinsic properties. Finally, I come back to what I consider the core of the thesis and suggest that the epidemiological research analysed in the paper indicates different interpretations of evidential pluralism and its applicability in the health sciences.
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Archival date: 2019-02-15
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2019-02-13

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