Causal Inference, Moral Intuition, and Modeling in a Pandemic
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been eager to learn what factors, and especially what public health policies, cause infection rates to wax and wane. But figuring out conclusively what causes what is difficult in complex systems with nonlinear dynamics, such as pandemics. We review some of the challenges that scientists have faced in answering quantitative causal questions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and suggest that these challenges are a reason to augment the moral dimension of conversations about causal inference. We take a lesson from Martha Nussbaum—who cautions us not to think we have just one question on our hands when we have at least two—and apply it to modeling for causal inference in the context of cost-benefit analysis.
Abadie, Alberto. 2021. “Using Synthetic Controls: Feasibility, Data Requirements, and Methodological Aspects.” Journal of Economic Literature 59, no. 2: 391–425. https://doi.org/10.1257/jel.2019145.
Cevik, Muge and Stefan D. Baral. 2021. “Networks of SARS-CoV-2 Transmission.” Science 373, no. 6551: 162–163. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg0842.
Dave, Dhaval, Drew McNichols, and Joseph J. Sabia. 2020. “The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Covid-19.” Southern Economic Journal 87, no. 3: 769–807. https://doi.org/10.1002/soej.12475.
Doll, Richard. 2002. “Proof of Causality: Deduction from Epidemiological Observation.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45, no. 4: 499–515. https://doi.org/10.1353/pbm.2002.0067.
Dowd, Jennifer Beam. 2020. “The Sturgis Biker Rally Did Not Cause 266,796 Cases of Covid-19.” Slate, September 10. https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/sturgis-rally-covid19-explosion-paper.html (accessed September 8, 2021).
Elliott, Kevin C. and Daniel J. McKaughan. 2009. “How Values in Scientific Discovery and Pursuit Alter Theory Appraisal.” Philosophy of Science 76, no. 5: 598–611. https://doi.org/10.1086/605807.
Harvard, Stephanie, Gregory R. Werker, and Diego S. Silva. 2020. “Social, Ethical, and Other Value Judgments in Health Economics Modeling.” Social Science & Medicine 253: 112975. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.112975.
Howick, Jeremy. 2011. The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
John, Stephen. 2020. “The Ethics of Lockdown: Communication, Consequences, and the Separateness of Persons.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, June 17. https://kiej.georgetown.edu/ethics-of-lockdown-special-issue/ (accessed September 8, 2021).
Madani, Doha. 2020. “Sturgis Rally May Have Caused More Than 250,000 New Coronavirus Cases, Study Finds.” NBC News, September 9. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/sturgis-rally-may-have-caused-250-000-new-coronavirus-cases-n1239577 (accessed September 8, 2021).
Mitze, Timo, Reinhold Kosfeld, Johannes Rode, and Klaus Wälde. “Face Masks Considerably Reduce Covid-19 Cases in Germany.” PNAS 117, no. 51: 32293–32301. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2015954117.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. “The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis.” Journal of Legal Studies 29, no. S2. https://doi.org/10.1086/468103.
Prasad, Vinay. 2021. “Op-Ed: Do ‘Lockdowns’ Work?” Medpage Today, February 4. https://www.medpagetoday.com/opinion/vinay-prasad/91054 (accessed September 8, 2021).
Schliesser, Eric and Eric Winsberg. 2020. “Climate and Coronavirus: The Science Is Not the Same.” New Statesman, March 23. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2020/03/climate-coronavirus-science-experts-data-sceptics (accessed September 8, 2021).
Stegenga, Jacob. “Fast Science and Philosophy of Science.” BJPS Blog. http://www.thebsps.org/auxhyp/fast-science-stegenga/ (accessed September 8, 2021).
Copyright (c) 2021 Stephanie Harvard, Eric Winsberg
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- The Author retains copyright in the Work, where the term “Work” shall include all digital objects that may result in subsequent electronic publication or distribution.
- Upon acceptance of the Work, the author shall grant to the Publisher the right of first publication of the Work.
- The Author shall grant to the Publisher and its agents the nonexclusive perpetual right and license to publish, archive, and make accessible the Work in whole or in part in all forms of media now or hereafter known under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License or its equivalent, which, for the avoidance of doubt, allows others to copy, distribute, and transmit the Work under the following conditions:
- Attribution—other users must attribute the Work in the manner specified by the author as indicated on the journal Web site;
- The Author is able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the nonexclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the Work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), as long as there is provided in the document an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post online a prepublication manuscript (but not the Publisher’s final formatted PDF version of the Work) in institutional repositories or on their Websites prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work. Any such posting made before acceptance and publication of the Work shall be updated upon publication to include a reference to the Publisher-assigned DOI (Digital Object Identifier) and a link to the online abstract for the final published Work in the Journal.
- Upon Publisher’s request, the Author agrees to furnish promptly to Publisher, at the Author’s own expense, written evidence of the permissions, licenses, and consents for use of third-party material included within the Work, except as determined by Publisher to be covered by the principles of Fair Use.
- The Author represents and warrants that:
- the Work is the Author’s original work;
- the Author has not transferred, and will not transfer, exclusive rights in the Work to any third party;
- the Work is not pending review or under consideration by another publisher;
- the Work has not previously been published;
- the Work contains no misrepresentation or infringement of the Work or property of other authors or third parties; and
- the Work contains no libel, invasion of privacy, or other unlawful matter.
- The Author agrees to indemnify and hold Publisher harmless from Author’s breach of the representations and warranties contained in Paragraph 6 above, as well as any claim or proceeding relating to Publisher’s use and publication of any content contained in the Work, including third-party content.
- The Author agrees to digitally sign the Publisher’s final formatted PDF version of the Work.