Hostname: page-component-f7d5f74f5-9ndps Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-10-03T13:58:40.790Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Wishful Intelligibility, Black Boxes, and Epidemiological Explanation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


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.

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

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


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.


Anderson, Elizabeth. 2004. “Uses of Value Judgments in Science: A General Argument, with Lessons from a Case Study of Feminist Research on Divorce.” Hypatia 19 (1): 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baetu, Tudor M. 2014. “Models and the Mosaic of Scientific Knowledge: The Case of Immunology.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science C 45 (March): 4956.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Broadbent, Alex. 2011. “Inferring Causation in Epidemiology: Mechanisms, Black Boxes, and Contrasts.” In Causation in the Sciences, ed. Illari, Phyllis McKay, Russo, Federica, and Williamson, Jon, 4569. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Cranor, Carl F. 2017. “How Demands for Ideal Science Undermine the Public’s Health.” In Tragic Failures: How and Why We Are Harmed by Toxic Chemicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
de Regt, Henk. 2017. Understanding Scientific Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Douglas, Heather. 2000. “Inductive Risk and Values in Science.” Philosophy of Science 67 (4): 559–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dupré, John. 1984. “Probabilistic Causality Emancipated.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 9:169–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dupré, John. 2013. “Living Causes.” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 87 (1): 1937.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Elgin, Catherine. 2007. True Enough. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Fehr, Carla. 2004. “Feminism and Science: Mechanism without Reductionism.” NWSA Journal 16 (1): 136–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gehlert, Sarah, Sohmer, Dana, Sacks, Tina, Mininger, Charles, McClintock, Martha, and Olopade, Olufunmilayo. 2008. “Targeting Health Disparities: A Model Linking Upstream Determinants to Downstream Interventions.” Health Affairs 27 (2): 339–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hiatt, Robert A. 2004. “The Social Determinants of Cancer.” European Journal of Epidemiology 19 (9): 821–22.Google ScholarPubMed
Howick, Jeremy, Glasziou, Paul, and Aronson, Jeffrey K.. 2013. “Problems with Using Mechanisms to Solve the Problem of Extrapolation.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 34 (4): 275–91.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Illari, Phyllis McKay. 2011. “Mechanistic Evidence: Disambiguating the Russo-Williamson Thesis.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 25 (2): 139–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ioannidis, J. P. A., Schully, S. D., Lam, T. K., and Khoury, M. J.. 2013. “Knowledge Integration in Cancer: Current Landscape and Future Prospects.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention 22 (1): 310.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Krieger, Nancy. 2008. “Proximal, Distal, and the Politics of Causation: What’s Level Got to Do with It?American Journal of Public Health 98 (2): 221–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Machamer, Peter, Darden, Lindley, and Craver, Carl F.. 2000. “Thinking about Mechanisms.” Philosophy of Science 67 (1): 125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mayo-Wilson, Conor. 2014. “The Limits of Piecemeal Causal Inference.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65 (2): 213–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mitchell, Sandra D. 2002. “Integrative Pluralism.” Biology and Philosophy 17:5570.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O’Malley, Maureen A., and Stotz, Karola. 2011. “Intervention, Integration and Translation in Obesity Research: Genetic, Developmental and Metaorganismal Approaches.” Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 6 (1): 2.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Pickersgill, Martyn. 2016. “Epistemic Modesty, Ostentatiousness and the Uncertainties of Epigenetics: On the Knowledge Machinery of (Social) Science.” Sociological Review 64 (Suppl.): 186202.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Plutynski, Anya. 2018. Explaining Cancer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Reiss, Julian. 2019. “Against External Validity.” Synthese 196:3103–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Russo, Federica, and Williamson, Jon. 2007. “Interpreting Causality in the Health Sciences.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21 (2): 157–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, Stephen W., and Earls, Felton. 1997. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Science 277 (5328): 918–24.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Shavers, Vickie L. 2007. “Measurement of Socioeconomic Status in Health Disparities Research.” Journal of the National Medical Association 99 (9): 1013–23.Google ScholarPubMed
Steel, Daniel. 2016. “Climate Change and Second-Order Uncertainty: Defending a Generalized, Normative, and Structural Argument from Inductive Risk.” Perspectives on Science 24 (6): 696721.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Steel, Daniel. 2018. “Wishful Thinking and Values in Science.” Philosophy of Science 85 (5): 895905.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Trout, J. D. 2002. “Scientific Explanation and the Sense of Understanding.” Philosophy of Science 69 (2): 212–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Woodward, James. 2000. “Explanation and Invariance in the Special Sciences.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51 (2): 197254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Woodward, James. 2010. “Causation in Biology: Stability, Specificity, and the Choice of Levels of Explanation.” Biology and Philosophy 25:287318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar