On Randomness, Determinism, False Dichotomies and Cancer

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Before I start – a short summary

[1] A recent paper attributed a large proportion of variation in incidence of cancers across different tissues to the number of stem cell divisions in them, and
stochastic errors in cell division.

[2] The paper grouped tumour types with known external causes as “deterministic” and those without as “stochastic”

[3] I have seen people being hostile to the notion of stochasticity in cancer who’ve postulated other deterministic factors, with the implicit assumption that what is stochastic is really deterministic processes with as-of-now undiscovered causes.

[4] Here I explain why processes with known causes are still stochastic, leading to my gripe with both the misunderstanding that has permeated discussion of the paper as well as the iffy notion of grouping tumours into stochastic and deterministic ones in the paper. My assertion is that even those cancers strongly driven by external carcinogens involve randomness/stochasticity.

Background

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