Virginia Tech Philosophy Department
2017 Distinguished Marjorie Grene Speaker
Professor Roberta L. Millstein
University of California, Davis
“Types of Experiments and Causal Process Tracing: What Happened on the Kaibab Plateau in the 1920s?”
September 15, 2017
320 Lavery Hall: 5:10-6:45pm
ABSTRACT. In a well-cited article, ecologist Jared Diamond characterizes three main types of experiment that are performed in community ecology: the Laboratory Experiment (LE), the Field Experiment (FE), and the Natural Experiment (NE). Diamond argues that each form of experiment has strengths and weaknesses, with respect to, for example, realism or the ability to follow a causal trajectory. But does Diamond’s typology exhaust the available kinds of cause-finding practices? Some social scientists have characterized something they call causal process tracing. Is this a fourth type of experiment or something else? In this talk, I examine Diamond’s typology and causal process tracing in the context of a case study concerning the dynamics of wolf and deer populations on the Kaibab Plateau in the 1920s, a case that has been used as a canonical example of a trophic cascade by ecologists but which has also been subject to a fair bit of controversy. I argue that ecologists have profitably deployed causal process tracing together with other types of experiment to help settle questions of causality in this case. It remains to be seen how widespread the use of causal process tracing outside of the social sciences is (or could be), but there are some potentially promising applications, particularly with respect to questions about specific causal sequences.
There will be an additional, informal discussion of Millstein’s* (2013) Chapter 8: “Natural Selection and Causal Productivity” on Saturday, September 16 10:15a.m. at Thebes (Mayo’s house). For queries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sponsored by Mayo-Chatfield Fund for Experimental Reasoning, Reliability, Objectivity and Rationality ( E.R.R.O.R.) and the Philosophy Department
- Millstein, R. (2006). “Natural Selection as a Population-Level Causal Process”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 57 Issue 4, p. 627.
- Millstein, R. (2013) Chapter 8: “Natural Selection and Causal Productivity” in H.-K. Chao et al. (eds.), Mechanism and Causality in Biology and Economics.
- Mayo, D. (1986). Understanding Frequency-Dependent Causation” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 49: 109-124.
- Mayo, D. and N. Gilinsky (1987). ” Models of Group Selection,” Philosophy of Science, 54(4): 515-538.
*Roberta L. Millstein is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis, with affiliations to the Science and Technology Studies Program and the John Muir Institute for the Environment. She specializes in the history and philosophy of biology as well as environmental ethics, with a particular focus on fundamental concepts in evolution and ecology. Her work has appeared in journals such as Philosophy of Science; Journal of the History of Biology; Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Journal of the History of Biology; and Ethics, Policy & Environment. She is Co-Editor of the online, open-access journal, Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology and has served on governing boards for several academic societies. Her current project develops and defends a reinterpretation of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic in light of contemporary ecology.