Emerging infectious diseases: Coping with uncertainty

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20 Citations (Scopus)


The world's scientific community must be in a state of constant readiness to address the threat posed by newly emerging infectious diseases. Whether the disease in question is SARS in humans or BSE in animals, scientists must be able to put into action various disease containment measures when everything from the causative pathogen to route(s) of transmission is essentially uncertain. A robust epistemic framework, which will inform decision-making, is required under such conditions of uncertainty. I will argue that this framework should have reasoning at its center and, specifically, that forms of reasoning beyond deduction and induction should be countenanced by scientists who are confronted with emerging infectious diseases. In previous articles, I have presented a case for treating certain so-called traditional informal fallacies as rationally acceptable forms of argument that can facilitate scientific inquiry when little is known about an emerging disease. In this article, I want to extend that analysis by highlighting the unique features of these arguments that makes them specially adapted to cope with conditions of uncertainty. Of course, such a view of the informal fallacies must at least be consistent with the reasoning practices of scientists, and particularly those scientists (viz. epidemiologists) whose task it is to track and respond to newly emerging infectious diseases. To this end, I draw upon examples of scientific reasoning from the UK's BSE crisis, a crisis that posed a significant threat to both human and animal health.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-188
Number of pages18
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Informal fallacy
  • Presumption
  • Reasoning
  • Scientific inquiry
  • Uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language


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