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Causal Understandings: Controversy, Social Context, and Mesothelioma Research

  • Lundy Braun
  • Hannah Kopinski
Original Article


Asbestos-related diseases are often considered a ‘thing of the past’ in the global North. Yet, asbestos products remain widely used in the global South, especially in low cost housing. Like many occupational diseases, the history of asbestos is fraught with scientific controversy. The role of the asbestos industry in fostering uncertainty has been investigated for decades. But, less is known about the ways in which publicly-funded, not industry-funded, science has produced ignorance about the health consequences of exposure. To explore the contribution of publicly-funded science to the construction of ignorance, we examine the continuities and discontinuities among three hypotheses of mesothelioma causality: the amphibole hypothesis, the SV40 hypothesis, and the genetic hypothesis. Placing our analysis of scientific controversy in the context of asbestos mining in South Africa, we summarize the key features of the long-standing amphibole hypothesis, track in detail the emergence of SV40 as a causal agent, and outline the ongoing debate over genes as causes of mesothelioma. Regardless of the source of funding, we argue that by operating within conceptually closed biomedical frameworks, each hypothesis generated scientific controversy that made the political, social, and economic context of asbestos mining, milling, and manufacture in South Africa and other regions of the global South invisible, thereby limiting causal understanding.


Asbestos SV40 Epistemic oppression Mesothelioma Construction of ignorance Amphibole hypothesis 



The authors thank the participants in the 2011 Workshop Debating Causation: Risk, Biology, Self, and Environment in Cancer Epistemology, 1950–2000 at Princeton University and the 2016 Boston Colloquium on Race and Epistemic Marginalization at Boston University for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper. We also thank Anne Fausto-Sterling for discussions around the concept of publicly-funded science. We extend our gratitude to the late Frank Kellerman for his assistance with our search.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.New York University School of MedicineNew YorkUSA

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