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Minimizing Cognitive Errors in Site-Specific Causal Assessments

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Interest in causal investigations in aquatic systems has been a natural outgrowth of the increased use of biological monitoring to characterize the condition of resources. Although biological monitoring approaches are critical tools for detecting whether effects are occurring, they do not identify the cause of the observed effects. Formal approaches to causal evaluation can provide a mechanism to build on expert knowledge, increasing the likelihood that remedial efforts will achieve the desired environmental improvement. This paper examines how formal approaches to causal investigations minimize common errors. We reviewed common cognitive errors reported in the literature, and compared them with considerations suggested for strength-of-evidence approaches. Many of the causal considerations are directed toward distinguishing spurious correlations from true causal relationships. However, this is only one type of error; others include hypothesis dependence, confirmation bias, hypothesis tenacity and anchoring. We suggest three general principles for minimizing error in site-specific investigations: (1) Conduct the causal evaluation as a fair, transparent comparison among alternatives; (2) Carefully describe and quantify the conjunction of cause and effect; and (3) Consider that conjunction between cause and effect is spurious, or that a real conjunction was masked.

Keywords: bioassessment; ecoepidemiology; strength-of-evidence

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Center for Environmental Assessment, Washington, DC, USA 2: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Center for Environmental Assessment, Cincinnati, OH, USA 3: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Cincinnati, OH, USA

Publication date: January 1, 2003

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