University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Not-knowing about the aetiology of cervical cancer: a puzzle about absence of evidence

Not-knowing about the aetiology of cervical cancer: a puzzle about absence of evidence

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What’s the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence? This paper explores this question via a biomedical case that involved a protracted absence of evidence. Cervical cancer is now thought to be caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). However, for the two decades between about 1965 and 1984, cervical cancer was thought to be caused by infection with an unrelated virus known as herpes simplex virus (HSV). From the first suggestion that HSV might cause cervical cancer, its causal role was thought to be highly plausible, largely because of the roles played by herpes viruses in causing cancers in animals. By analogy with these animal tumours, an extensive research programme developed around HSV that was predicated on investigating its (possible) aetiological role in cervical cancer. While this research led to many publications, few of them appeared to implicate HSV in the genesis of cancer of the cervix. Despite this, HSV remained by far the most plausible cause of cervical cancer to cancer-virus researchers at the time.

The aim of this paper is come to an understanding of this persistent absence of evidence in the context of recent research into agnotology – culturally induced ignorance or doubt. However, the emphasis in much of this work is firmly on ignorance as ‘something that is made, maintained, and manipulated’ (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008:8). Typical cases discussed in the agnotology literature – such as military classification of documents, or the doubt deliberately cast on the causal link between smoking and lung cancer – are characterised by the deliberate obscuring of knowledge by individuals or organisations. This is not so for cervical cancer, in which a persistent absence of knowledge seems to have been ignored, rather than manufactured. Here, I therefore explore an epistemic thesis concerning agnotology: ‘when should persistent absence of evidence make us think sceptically about a particular hypothesis?’

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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