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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Paper manager: Stephen John

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

Lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Science and Communism
Mary Brazelton (4)
Thu 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John (4), Michael Diamond-Hunter (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Sociology of Science
Dániel Margócsy (2), Anna Alexandrova (1), Josh Nall (1)
Fri 10am (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Climate Change
Richard Staley (4)
Fri 10am (weeks 1–4)
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine (continued)
Stephen John (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Ethical Issues in Psychiatry
Tom McClelland (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 5–8)
Ethics and Politics of Technology
Tom McClelland (4)
Wed 12noon (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.



Science and Communism

Mary Brazelton (4 lectures, Michaelmas 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.

Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine

Stephen John, Michael Diamond-Hunter (12 lectures, Michaelmas & Lent Terms)

This course considers two 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.

Sociology of Science

Dániel Margócsy, Anna Alexandrova, Josh Nall (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course introduces sociological approaches to science. We start from the basic idea that science depends on the existence of norms and institutions and move to the deeper one that the content of its theories and facts have a location and a standpoint even when those are not visible. We describe basic sociological concepts which help us understand the work of the sciences: how scientists observe and classify the world, how they reach consensus and establish their credibility, the way they organise their communities and perform experiments, the places where they work and the links between them. This discussion provides themes for exploring historical examples of experimental physics, colonial botany and zoology, and the climate sciences.

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.

Ethical Issues in Psychiatry

Tom McClelland (4 lectures, Lent Term)

It is commonly reported that we are living through an epidemic of mental illness. Psychiatric treatment has never been more widespread, but the ethical issues raised by psychiatry run deep. When, if ever, should a pattern of mental behaviour be regarded as a medical condition? Does the pathologisation of suffering serve the interests of the patient or the interests of industry? How might psychiatric disorders complicate the possibility of informed consent? Should a patient be free to choose how to address their condition, even if it causes them harm? When, if ever, is it ethical to impose compulsory psychiatric treatment on a patient? How does society discriminate against those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and what implications does this have for the practice of psychiatry? How is diagnosis and treatment biased by gender, age, race and their intersections? Might issues of discrimination be improved or exacerbated by the increased use of AI in psychiatry? Should therapists always be human, or could a patient form an effective therapeutic relationship with an AI?

Ethics and Politics of Technology

Tom McClelland (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Technology plays an integral role in society and has the power to bring about both huge benefits and terrible harms. Focusing on the development of Artificial Intelligence, this course explores the ethical and political ramifications of technology. How, if at all, can technology be evaluated normatively? When technology causes harm, who should be held responsible: the designers, the user or society as a whole? Can AI be used to overcome the blight of human prejudice or do algorithms themselves encode societal biases? What ethical principles should be encoded into AI, and can an artificial system ever really be ethical? Should we take seriously the idea of AI one day destroying humanity and, if so, what should we be doing about it? Under what conditions would an artificial system deserve our moral consideration? If moral worth is bound to consciousness, how should we go about assessing whether an AI is conscious? And if we can't be sure whether an AI is conscious, what is the most responsible policy to adopt?


Preliminary reading


Resources for Paper 6 on Moodle