skip to primary navigationskip to content

Paper 6: Ethics and Politics of Science, Technology and Medicine

Paper manager: Anna Alexandrova

Also offered as an optional paper in Part IIB of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (HSPS).

All lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John (8), Jacob Stegenga (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
Simon Schaffer (4)
Wed 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Philosophy of Economics
Anna Alexandrova (8)
Contrary to previous announcements, these lectures will be held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Thu 10am (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Technology and Society
Helen Curry (4)
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Science and Communism
Mary Brazelton (4)
Fri 10am (weeks 1–4)
Climate Change
Richard Staley (4)
Fri 10am (weeks 5–8)

Science, technology and medicine play a central role in the modern world. However, there are many on-going political and ethical controversies over the role they ought to play. These include debates over whether, when and how, ethical and political values should shape scientific research and practice, and over when and how scientific results and new technologies should be used. Furthermore, these important disputes relate to more fundamental questions about the relationship between truth, values and objectivity. The aim of this paper is to introduce students to both practical and theoretical debates over the politics and ethics of science and to examine their inter-relationships.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to acquaint students with core issues in ethics and politics of science, technology and medicine;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the principal changes in the practices of science and technology in the modern world that resulted from political pressures;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the arguments for and against some of the central philosophical claims about science and values;
  • to give students guidance necessary for pursuing further research in the area of the paper;
  • to give students understanding of the processes and controversies surrounding the use of science for policy (national and international), technology and medical treatment.


Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John, Jacob Stegenga (12 lectures, Michaelmas & Lent Terms)

This course considers three important sets of questions. In the first four lectures, we look at some of the central questions of bio-medical ethics, focusing in particular on issues of autonomy and consent in clinical and research settings. In the second group of lectures, we turn to consider the broader political and institutional settings which influence population health, paying particular attention to questions of the allocation of scarce resources, and the proper ends of – and limits to – public health policy. In the third group of lectures, we zoom out again to consider the even more general question of the relationship between political concerns and scientific concerns: can research be free of 'non-epistemic' social and political values? Should it be? By the end of this course, students should have a good understanding of the philosophical debates underlying some of the most controversial issues in biomedical and scientific research.

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
Simon Schaffer (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course introduces the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). We describe some basic sociological concepts which help us understand the work of the sciences: how scientists observe and classify the world, the way they organise their communities and perform experiments, the places where they work and the links between them. This discussion of SSK provides themes for philosophical discussion of social explanation and for historical approaches to past sciences.

Philosophy of Economics
Anna Alexandrova (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Economics is to some 'the dismal science' and to others 'the queen of social science'. But before it can be either criticized or defended it should be understood. The guiding question of this course is what sort of science is economics? We explore two key projects of contemporary economics – model-building and social evaluation. The first project is positive, aiming at providing explanation and understanding of social phenomena by means of simple models typically involving ideally rational agents. Can such models provide explanations despite their apparent falsity? If so, how? If not, what else are these models good for? The second project is normative – to evaluate different social states and policies for their effect on human welfare. We shall see that typically economists define welfare as efficiency, and efficiency as the optimal satisfaction of preferences of all involved. Is this a defensible theory of well-being? What should happen when preference satisfaction conflicts with other values such as justice and equality? If welfare economics is a project that assumes certain ethical and political values, what does this mean for objectivity of economics as a science? As we explore these questions we touch on such classic topics in philosophy of science as what it takes to confirm a theory or a model, the nature of scientific progress, whether explanations must state the facts (and even better fundamental facts) and whether science should be free of values.

Technology and Society
Helen Curry (4 lectures, Lent Term)

From the conspicuous high-tech devices that keep us in constant communication to the largely hidden systems that bring us clean water and electricity, technologies shape nearly every aspect of our lives. Any survey of the news shows that technologies can be politically controversial and contested – drones, nuclear reactors, genetically modified crops. But even seemingly mundane technologies can be instruments of power and politics, such as transport systems that don't reach underprivileged neighbourhoods or super-tall smokestacks that disperse pollution over greater distances. This course examines the politics of technology through the work of historians, sociologists and philosophers. The lectures tackle a series of questions central to this subject: How and with what consequences are technologies produced and distributed? What role do consumers play in technological development? What is the relationship between global poverty and technological infrastructure? Is 'technological' inherently 'unnatural', and what are the consequences of making this distinction?

Science and Communism
Mary Brazelton (4 lectures, Lent Term)

The rise of Communist governments in the 20th century involved a variety of new understandings and practices of science and technology. During the Cold War, science took on a variety of forms and meanings across the Communist world, from the emergence of Lysenkoist genetics in the Soviet Union to promotions of mass science in the People's Republic of China. These lectures discuss the meanings that political theories attributed to science, as well as science and technology in policy and practice in the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Cuba, and other Communist states. Topics covered include the roles of technical expertise and the place of techno-science in global Cold War politics.

Climate Change
Richard Staley (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Climate change is a historical science which depends on the analysis of an extraordinarily complex set of interactions, with strong but uncertain implications for our future. This course sets debates on the existence, causes, and potential amelioration of global warming in historical context, and explores relations between science and politics in a rapidly developing and urgently controversial field. Analysis of climate change relies on integrating forms of research and argumentative claims that cross disciplinary boundaries between sciences like geology, meteorology, oceanography and geophysics. It has also engaged scientists, the public, and policy makers in vociferous debate, leading to the development of novel institutional forms like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while sometimes appearing to provide merely yet another battleground for traditional interest groups in industry, science, and politics. We trace developments from the 1860s onwards and examine several case studies of current research to understand how local research engages global arguments, and how current science is shaped equally by historical context and future projections.

Preliminary reading

Starred items are particularly useful starting points.

  • *Buchanan, Allen, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel I. Wilker, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • *Collins, Harry, and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What Everyone Should Know about Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • *Collins, Harry, and Trevor Pinch, The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Douglas, Heather, Science, Policy and the Value-Free Ideal (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)
  • Everson, Michelle, and Ellen Vos (eds), Uncertain Risks Regulated (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)
  • Foley, Elizabeth Price, The Law of Life and Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)
  • Fox Keller, Evelyn, and Helen E. Longino (eds), Feminism and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • *Huber, Peter, Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom (New York: Basic Books, 1993)
  • Jasonoff, Sheila S., Science at the Bar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)
  • *Kitcher, Philip, The Lives to Come (London: Penguin, 1996)
  • Kitcher, Philip, Science, Truth and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Latour, Bruno, Science in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987)
  • MacKenzie, Donald A., and Judy Wajcman (eds) The Social Shaping of Technology, 2nd edition (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999)
  • Nelkin, Dorothy, Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, revised edition (New York: WH Freeman, 1995)
  • *Pielke, Roger, The Honest Broker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  • Reiss, Julian, Philosophy of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2013)
  • Rodrik, Dani, Economics Rules (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 or any other edition)

Resources for Paper 6 on Moodle