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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


All events take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm UK time.

Organised by Anna Alexandrova and Helen Anne Curry.

Recordings of the Virtual Conversations from Easter Term 2020 are available online.

Introductory seminars

These two sessions function as an introduction to members of staff for incoming students. They are open to members of the Department.

8 October
What does HPS mean to me?

Teams: Seminar Room 2

Short answers by Anna Alexandrova (chair), Hasok Chang, Staffan Müller-Wille, Simon Schaffer, Matt Farr, Marta Halina, Sam Robinson, Salim Al-Gailani.

15 October
What does HPS mean to the world?

Teams: Seminar Room 2

Short answers by Helen Curry (chair), Nick Hopwood, Lauren Kassell, Tim Lewens, Mary Brazelton, Jacob Stegenga, Stephen John, Josh Nall.

Michaelmas Term 2020: main programme

The following seminars are open to all members of the HPS Discussion list. They will be held on Zoom.

22 October
Henrice Altink (University of York)
Linking the global and the local: the double burden of child malnutrition in Jamaica, c. 1960–2020

Following independence in 1962, successive governments in Jamaica tried to reduce the high rate of child malnutrition. Malnutrition was the result of a lack of protein and calories, also called PCM – Protein Calorie Malnutrition – and was a leading cause of death. Since the 1990s, however, the island has witnessed a nutrition transition with child malnutrition declining and child obesity increasing. Based on, amongst others, medical journals, newspaper reports, ministry papers, and reports of international agencies, this paper first of all explores how child malnutrition was measured and analysed; the various proposals put forward and implemented to reduce it; and the success rate of these policies. It will show that over time child malnutrition and the solutions proposed became increasingly localised; that is, greater attention was paid to the socio-economic and cultural context of pre-school children and their families and there was less reliance on outside agencies to reduce PCM. The paper will then move on to trace the rise in child obesity levels and show that contrary to the UK, US and many other western countries, child obesity in Jamaica is largely associated with higher income groups. Although child obesity has rapidly increased – in 2017 some 10.3% of children were obese – very few attempts have so far been made to localise the problem. The paper will explain why only recently campaigns – both government and NGO funded – have been started to address child obesity.

29 October
Michela Massimi (University of Edinburgh)
The history of the electric charge c. 1897–1906 through the lenses of perspectival realism

Scientists often disagree both that something is and about what it is. This kind of scientific disagreement is of great interest to historians of science, who might want to establish who really discovered some entity – e.g. whether it was Joseph Priestley rather than Antoine Lavoisier who discovered what we now call 'oxygen'; or, whether it was George J. Stoney or J.J. Thomson who really discovered the electron, given that in his Nobel Prize speech Thomson was still calling his entity a 'corpuscle'. But, historiographical debates aside, disagreement that something is and about what it is also raises pressing questions for philosophers with realist leanings. How are we to spell out the realist commitment in cases where scientists disagree about the nature of the entity? What is it like to be a realist in the face of scientific disagreement? This paper takes some steps towards answering this question by looking at the case of the electric charge. As it happens, at the turn of the last century, there was a disagreement about the nature of the electron as the bearer of the electric charge. And there were also different views about the electric charge and the reasons why it is a 'natural unit'. Digging (briefly for limits of space here) into the history of this scientific disagreement around 1897–1906 is instructive for two different reasons. First, it helps elucidate the nature of disagreement. This was rooted not in scientists accepting or denying pieces of evidence, but rather in the way in which pieces of evidence, or, better, data, were embedded in different scientific perspectives and used for inferring a variety of phenomena, from which the electric charge could in turn be inferred. Second, a brief foray into the history of the electric charge can help us understand the exact nature of the realist commitment that is compatible with what I call 'perspectival disagreement'.

5 November: Anita McConnell Lecture
Jim Bennett (University of Oxford, emeritus)
A material history of 16th-century astronomy?

I first encountered the history of science in Cambridge in the later 1960s, when a prominent narrative in the curriculum at HPS was something called 'the astronomical revolution'. The thread to be followed in this narrative was planetary theory and it led to an understanding of historical 'cosmology'. This was terrific – intellectual and technical stimulation, sustained by a compelling storyline and offering a fresh start for my flagging engagement with science. I may have emerged ignorant of the astrolabe and knowing little more about even the armillary sphere, but I was switched on to the history of science. Might it have been different? Could we write an account of 16th-century astronomy based on objects? Probably not, but for an hour or so, it's worth a try.

12 November
Noémi Tousignant (University College London)
Africa, race and the most expensive vaccine yet: stakes of hepatitis B immunisation research in Senegal and the Gambia

Among the earliest and most ambitious experiments of hepatitis B vaccine happened in West Africa from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s. Yet both plasma and recombinant vaccines for this virus, which hit the market as the most expensive vaccines yet, were not widely provided in Africa until the 2000s. In this paper, I examine relations and disjunctions between the politics of experimentation and those of vaccine distribution across spaces (and times) of economic, epidemiological and racialised difference. My focus is on the planning of a research programme partially implemented in Senegal from the late 1970s, and another launched in 1986 as the Gambia Hepatitis Intervention Study. I show how the logics underpinning this research – to use vaccination as an experimental device for generating aetiological evidence of viral cancer causation – made it acceptable to test a technology that was expected to remain 'too expensive for Africa' in the foreseeable future, and discuss how not just patterns of accessibility but their modes of rendering acceptable were racialised.

19 November
Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij (Birkbeck, University of London)
Do we live in a post-truth era?

Have we entered a 'post-truth' era? The present paper attempts to answer this question by (a) offering an explication of the notion of 'post-truth' drawn from recent discussions; (b) deriving a testable implication from that explication, to the effect that we should expect to see decreasing information effects – i.e. differences between actual preferences and estimated, fully informed preferences – on central political issues over time; and then (c) putting the relevant narrative to the test by way of counterfactual modelling, using election year data for the period of 2004–2016 from the American National Election Studies' (ANES) Times Series Study. The implication in question turns out to be consistent with the data: at least in a US context, we do see evidence of a decrease in information effects on key, political issues – immigration, same-sex adoption and gun laws, in particular – in the period 2004 to 2016. This offers some novel, empirical evidence for the 'post-truth' narrative.

26 November
HPS Virtual Conversation: How to study animal minds

Organised by Marta Halina

A great deal of work in comparative psychology – the study of human and nonhuman animal minds – is dedicated to the question of how to avoid bias. How do we ensure researchers are not anthropomorphising (or oversimplifying) their subjects? In her new book, How to Study Animal Minds (2020), Kristin Andrews argues that comparative psychologists should aim to integrate a wide range of approaches for studying animal minds, rather than focus on avoiding bias. This Virtual Conversation brings together four scholars working at the intersection of HPS and comparative psychology to explore the question, 'how should we study animal minds?'.

Speakers: Kristin Andrews (York University), Mike Dacey (Bates College), Ali Boyle (University of Cambridge), Marta Halina (University of Cambridge)