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Behind the Numbers: Risk and Morality in Epidemiologic Controversies

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Abstract:

This paper addresses the making of epidemiologic statements, and how this scientific process usually conceals notions of risk and moral imperatives through the use of large databases, statistical methods and inductive reasoning. From the premise that the related concepts of illness and health are socially constructed, it argues that behind the scientifically collected numbers and logically established statistics there is, in fact, a whole set of moral conceptions and constrains at work. Applying the “infrastructural inversion” methodological approach (Bowker & Star, 1999) it analyzes published scientific papers about two controversies in epidemiology – the association between passive exposure to tobacco smoke and cancer, and the relation between dietary fat and heart diseases – to draw observations about the sociotechnical elements and manufacturing of epidemiologic facts. It concludes that epidemiologic statements are sociotechnical assemblages simultaneously (and symmetrically) comprised of both technical elements (e.g. the scientific concepts of diseases, the databases and the statistical methods), and cultural and moral issues (such as the growing disapproval of smoking habits or the idea of body fat as a sign of illness) that tends to fade out and even disappear when the epidemiologic models reach their final stage and stability. Finally, it shows that in some epidemiologic controversies, the closure of the debate cannot be reached by technical arguments, but only through the use of moral imperatives and notions of risk (which came from outside the science domain), thus reinforcing the hypothesis of the social construction of the epidemiologic facts.
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Association:
Name: 4S Annual Meeting - Abstract and Session Submissions
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http://www.4sonline.org


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p515087_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Spiess, Maiko. and Costa, Maria Conceição da. "Behind the Numbers: Risk and Morality in Epidemiologic Controversies" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 4S Annual Meeting - Abstract and Session Submissions, Crowne Plaza Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, OH, Nov 02, 2011 <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p515087_index.html>

APA Citation:

Spiess, M. R. and Costa, M. , 2011-11-02 "Behind the Numbers: Risk and Morality in Epidemiologic Controversies" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 4S Annual Meeting - Abstract and Session Submissions, Crowne Plaza Cleveland City Center Hotel, Cleveland, OH <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p515087_index.html

Publication Type: Paper Abstract
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: This paper addresses the making of epidemiologic statements, and how this scientific process usually conceals notions of risk and moral imperatives through the use of large databases, statistical methods and inductive reasoning. From the premise that the related concepts of illness and health are socially constructed, it argues that behind the scientifically collected numbers and logically established statistics there is, in fact, a whole set of moral conceptions and constrains at work. Applying the “infrastructural inversion” methodological approach (Bowker & Star, 1999) it analyzes published scientific papers about two controversies in epidemiology – the association between passive exposure to tobacco smoke and cancer, and the relation between dietary fat and heart diseases – to draw observations about the sociotechnical elements and manufacturing of epidemiologic facts. It concludes that epidemiologic statements are sociotechnical assemblages simultaneously (and symmetrically) comprised of both technical elements (e.g. the scientific concepts of diseases, the databases and the statistical methods), and cultural and moral issues (such as the growing disapproval of smoking habits or the idea of body fat as a sign of illness) that tends to fade out and even disappear when the epidemiologic models reach their final stage and stability. Finally, it shows that in some epidemiologic controversies, the closure of the debate cannot be reached by technical arguments, but only through the use of moral imperatives and notions of risk (which came from outside the science domain), thus reinforcing the hypothesis of the social construction of the epidemiologic facts.


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