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Wishful Intelligibility, Black Boxes, and Epidemiological Explanation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022

Abstract

Epidemiological explanation often has a “black box” character, meaning the intermediate steps between cause and effect are unknown. Filling in black boxes is thought to improve causal inferences by making them intelligible. I argue that adding information about intermediate causes to a black box explanation is an unreliable guide to pragmatic intelligibility because it may mislead us about the stability of a cause. I diagnose a problem that I call wishful intelligibility, which occurs when scientists misjudge the limitations of certain features of an explanation. Wishful intelligibility gives us a new reason to prefer black box explanations in some contexts.

Type
Explanation
Copyright
Copyright 2021 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.

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Footnotes

I am grateful to Jim Woodward, Anya Plutynski, Michael Dietrich, Sandra Mitchell, Jonathan Fuller, Kareem Khalifa, Kathleen Creel, Dasha Pruss, Vivian Feldblyum, the Pitt HPS Works in Progress community, and audiences at POBAMz 2020 and the PMPOS Conceptual and Methodological Aspects of Biomedical Research conference for generous and thoughtful discussions about this argument.

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