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

Paper manager: Stephen John (Michaelmas Term), Agnes Bolinska (Lent & Easter Terms)

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)
Philosophy of Economics
Anna Alexandrova (8)
Thu 10am (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
Simon Schaffer (6)
Wed 10am (weeks 1–6)
Science and Communism
Mary Brazelton (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.

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.

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
Simon Schaffer (6 lectures, Lent 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.

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

The rise of governments that used the term 'Communist' to describe themselves 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 Eastern Bloc and its sphere of influence, 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 Marxist and related 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-aligned states. Topics covered include the roles of technical expertise and the place of techno-science in global Cold War politics.

Preliminary reading

  • Bernal, J.D., The Social Function of Science (London: Routledge, 1939)
  • 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)
  • Fox Keller, Evelyn, and Helen E. Longino (eds), Feminism and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Graham, Loren, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • 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)
  • Pielke, Roger, The Honest Broker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  • Reiss, Julian, Philosophy of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2013)

Resources for Paper 6 on Moodle