Causation in medicine

In Wenceslao J. Gonzalez (ed.), Conceptual Revolutions: from Cognitive Science to Medicine. Netbiblo (2012)
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In this paper, I offer one example of conceptual change. Specifically, I contend that the discovery that viruses could cause cancer represents an excellent example of branch jumping, one of Thagard’s nine forms of conceptual change. Prior to about 1960, cancer was generally regarded as a degenerative, chronic, non-infectious disease. Cancer causation was therefore usually held to be a gradual process of accumulating cellular damage, caused by relatively non-specific component causes, acting over long periods of time. Viral infections, on the other hand, were generally understood to be acute processes, whereby single, specific and necessary causal agents acted alone to produce disease. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, a number of cancers were discovered to have an infectious aetiology. Of particular note were two—Burkitt’s lymphoma and cervical cancer—which I will discuss in detail later in this piece. Together, these discoveries led, in the short term, to a tentative aetiological reclassification of some types of cancer as infectious diseases and, in the longer term, to a full-blown reclassification of cancer as an aetiological disease branch in its own right. This process of reclassification forms the empirical basis for my concluding remarks on the influence of classification upon causation in medicine. Through this, I aim to demonstrate that conceptual change, far from being a purely abstract concern of the philosopher of science, is of substantial import to scientific practitioners.

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Brendan Clarke
University College London


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