How to describe an epidemiological detective or naturalist’s method?

For session 2 of my course on epidemiological thinking and population health I state:

Detailed observation (like a naturalist) or detective work–albeit informed by theoretical ideas–may be needed before we can characterize what the phenomenon is we are studying, what questions we need to ask, and what categories we need for subsequent data collection and analysis. (http://ppol753.wikispaces.umb.edu/Epi_2)

This statement invites clarification of what a naturalist or a detective does–what are their methods?  I found an interesting book on the method of Sherlock Holmes as a byproduct of Doyle’s medical education (Acord’s Success Secrets of Sherlock Holmes), but haven’t gotten much further.

When I read the posts of Rob Wallace (e.g., http://farmingpathogens.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/broiler-explosion/), I get a strong sense of someone who can trace connections and has a sense of where to look upstream, e.g.,

Explaining the ecosystemic dependencies out of which new pathogens arise isn’t nearly enough, however. Quammen rarely touches the processes occurring farther upstream. Pathogens are embedded in circuits of capital in such a way as to reverse conclusions based on ecology alone. (http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/14/the-virus-and-the-virus/)

But that quote (and others in the Quammen review) have a causal and interventionist agenda– it’s not a matter simply of “characteriz[ing] what the phenomenon is we are studying,” but of knowing “what questions we need to ask, and what categories we need for subsequent data collection and analysis” if we are to get at a picture in which we can see why disease outbreaks or risks happen.

Perhaps that means my theme for session 2 of the course and my inquiry into the method of naturalists and detectives are misframed. Instead, the method of tracing possible connections until the phenomena can be characterized well has to be guided by the question of how and where to intervene.  That informs but does not answer the question of how to describe an epidemiological detective or naturalist’s method in a way that makes sense to the graduate students who take my course.

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