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Methodologic Implications of the Precautionary Principle: Causal Criteria

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Applying the Precautionary Principle to public health requires a re-evaluation of the methods of inference currently used to make claims about disease causation from epidemiologic and other forms of scientific evidence. In current thinking, a well-established, near-certain causal relationship implies highly consistent statistically significant results across many different studies, large relative risk estimates, extensive understanding of biological mechanisms and dose-response relationships, positive prevention trial results, a clear temporal relationship between cause and effect, and other conditions spelled out in terms of the widely-used causal criteria. The Precautionary Principle, however, states that preventive measures are to be taken when cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. What evidentiary conditions, as reflected in the causal criteria, will be certain enough to warrant precautionary preventive action? This paper argues that minimum evidentiary requirements for causation need to be articulated if the Precautionary Principle is to be successfully incorporated into public health practice. Two precautionary changes to criteria-based methods of causal inference are examined: reducing the number of criteria and weakening the rules of inference accompanying the criteria. Such changes point in the direction of identifying minimum evidentiary conditions, but would be premature without better understanding how well current methods of causal inference work.
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Keywords: Precautionary Principle; causation; epidemiology; inference; theory

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, Rockville, MD, USA

Publication date: 01 February 2005

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