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What we face in facing up to complexity in the genetics of complex disease

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Epidemiology does well understanding the etiology of diseases produced by strong, replicable point-causation, such as by infectious organisms, strong environmental factors, and Mendelian (strong) genetic effects. We do much less well applying standard scientific methods to understand the cause of complex (multifactorial) disease. In frustration, and in the belief that genes are the essential causal elements of life, environmental epidemiology has been turning to genetics for the answers. But geneticists are having the same problems and for similar reasons, even if genes are in many ways more rigorously approachable than other kinds of causal agents. Genomes are experimentally approachable and illuminated as well as constrained by evolution in ways environmental factors are not. But how well complex casuation can be understood through conventional methods, or by scaled up computing and molecular technologies, or what alternative conceptualisation might be better, are unclear and highly debated.

This talk is part of the Inference Group series.

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