Spot the difference: Causal contrasts in scientific diagrams

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Scholl, Raphael
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An important function of scientific diagrams is to identify causal relationships. This commonly relies on contrasts that highlight the effects of specific difference-makers. However, causal contrast diagrams are not an obvious and easy to recognize category because they appear in many guises. In this paper, four case studies are presented to examine how causal contrast diagrams appear in a wide range of scientific reports, from experimental to observational and even purely theoretical studies. It is shown that causal contrasts can be expressed in starkly different formats, including photographs of complexly visualized macromolecules as well as line graphs, bar graphs, or plots of state spaces. Despite surface differences, however, there is a measure of conceptual unity among such diagrams. In empirical studies they generally serve not only to infer and communicate specific causal claims, but also as evidence for them. The key data of some studies is given nowhere except in the diagrams. Many diagrams show multiple causal contrasts in order to demonstrate both that an effect exists and that the effect is specific -- that is, to narrowly circumscribe the phenomenon to be explained. In a large range of scientific reports, causal contrast diagrams reflect the core epistemic claims of the researchers.