LFILO 2970: Seminarium: Ethics in Science/Society Relations

Website for 2Q, 2020–2021; last updated on January 12, 2021

Professor: Charles H. Pence
Course Time: Friday, 14h–16h, COUB 17
Course Details: 5.0 credits, 30.0h


  • Introductory course in ethics or in the relationship between science and society
  • General knowledge of the principal problems, schools of thought, and concepts in these areas

Main Themes

The seminar will deal with a theme in the area of the ethics of the relationship between science and society, to be determined by its members in relation to research projects in which they are currently involved. Active participation in discussion is strongly encouraged. Professors and researchers from UCLouvain who are interested in the topic and specialists in the topic from outside UCLouvain may participate in the seminar.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of the seminar, the student should be able:

  • To conduct research into a particular theme in the area of the ethics of the relationship between science and society based on a critical analysis of major works and texts by authors dealing with that theme, as well as on contributions presented within the framework of the seminar
  • To write a scientific paper on a precisely delimited topic that is germane to the theme of the seminar
  • To participate actively in cooperative research concerning the ethics of the relationship between science and society, especially through active participation in the discussion of contributions made within the framework of the seminar

This course forms part of the « Option en cultures et éthique du numérique » in FIAL.

More Information

The above is the official information for this course. More informally, however, the aim of this class is to introduce you to a variety of issues of contemporary scholarly relevance and genuine importance in the study of the relationship between science and the societies in which it is embedded. This includes the so-called “science and values” literature covering the role of ethical reasoning within science, the question of “manufactured ignorance” on topics like climate change, as well as more specialized literatures dealing with particular points of friction between science and society at large (such as questions of gender or economics). This will include not only the traditional sciences, but also will focus on modern technologies of “big data,” and their attendant worries about the right to privacy.

As you will see below, this course is substantially led by student interest, and we will spend the second half of the course in student-led workshops designed to get into greater depth on topics that you’d like to study further.

Required Readings

All readings will be posted electronically on the course readings website. The password for this website will be distributed via e-mail before the start of the course and in the first class session. You need not purchase any books for this course.

Assignments and Grading

  • Final Paper (50%): The primary output from this course will be a single seminar paper. You are free to write this paper in English or in French, though if you write in French I will not be able to provide commentary on the style or quality of your academic writing (e.g., if you would like to use this paper for admission to graduate programs).

    We will construct this paper in stages, beginning with a short outline due around the middle of the quadrimester, followed by a draft on which I will offer comments and a final draft at the end of the semester, which you will present at the end-of-term workshop. The hope is to produce high-quality papers, suitable for submission to a graduate journal, a conference, or as writing samples for your entrance into a doctoral program, should you be inclined to do so.

    Some paper topics will be discussed over the course of the semester, but it will ultimately be your responsibility to select a topic in line with your interests. Students who select a paper topic that they genuinely enjoy almost always earn higher grades. Spend time thinking (and talking to me!) about how to connect our material to your various philosophical interests.

  • Workshop Presentations (35%): In the second half of the course, there will be three sessions of student-led workshops, which will allow you to investigate an issue of particular interest in greater depth, either as a course or in smaller groups (depending upon course size and interests).

  • Participation and Attendance (15%): Students are expected to attend every session of the seminar and participate in in-class discussion of our readings and materials. Given the size of the course, I am hoping to foster a hybrid of a lecture and seminar format – lecturing at the beginning of each class period for not more than around half of our time, and opening up to discussion. Our discussions will be where you really learn most of our material. Philosophy is learned by doing, and always best as a conversation. Everyone is thus expected to study the material and come prepared to discuss it.

  • Coronavirus Planning: Should the lectures and workshops be held online, the “participation and attendance” element of the grade will be removed, and the final grade will be based 50% on the paper and 50% on the workshop.

In the second session, the evaluation consists of a personal research essay (50%) and a written exam (50%).

Workshop Information

After a number of introductory lectures designed to give you the prerequisites you need to approach the literature in science and society, we will spend the second half of the course in student-led workshops. Each of these three meetings will give you the opportunity to work in greater detail on a particular problem, present material, and engage in a class discussion about the problems that the question has raised.

  • Workshop Preparation Day: April 2. We’ll first spend one class meeting discussing the possibilities for workshop topics. As a group, you’ll pick three – perhaps preparing all as a single group, perhaps splitting into smaller groups to divide the workshops, depending on student interest.

  • Workshops: April 23, 30, May 14. For each of these workshops, it will be your responsibility to do the following:

    1. Prepare a bibliography that covers important literature in the area that you’ve selected. Sources can be in English or French, and of course I will be happy to help you construct this. (You will need to submit it to me before the workshop.)
    2. Present the literature that you’ve found, discussing both empirical and philosophical aspects of the question, and evaluating the arguments that you found surrounding them.
    3. Open and lead a discussion as a group for the remainder of our meeting. You will, of course, not resolve every possible open question in the issue that you consider, and so we should have plenty of time to discuss and debate these questions together.

You will be evaluated on the quality of the bibliography and of the presentation and discussion on the workshop day.

Paper Information

As noted above, the final paper will be written in stages. Here’s more information about how that process works. Note that all of the below (including the paper as well as the presentation) may be in either French or English.

  • Outline/Sketch: Due on April 2.

    Your first task is to prepare an outline or sketch of your paper idea. Your topic can be anything that you are interested in, as long as it’s in some way related to part of the material that we cover in the course. (If you’re not sure, send me an e-mail to check.)

    There is no defined format for this outline, because I know that everyone has different ways in which they prepare papers. The minimal requirement is to have enough text that it would amount to around one page total (whether that’s a “outline” or merely a sketch of what you would like to do is up to you), and to have at least three sources that will be important to your argument.

    Feel free as part of the outline to ask me for help – whether that’s finding more references, or help filling in parts of the argument, or anything else that you’d like.

    I will return comments on these outlines by April 9.

  • Draft for Comments: Due no later than May 7, can be submitted earlier.

    If you would like comments on your paper from me, you must submit a full draft to me no later than May 7. This will give me enough time to write detailed comments, return them to you, and then give you enough time to be able to incorporate those comments.

    I will return comments on these drafts by May 21.

  • Final Version: Due no later than May 31 (the first day of exam period), can be submitted earlier.

    I know that this is a fairly early deadline, and comes right after blocus, but there are several reasons that I want you to submit your papers earlier. First, you will be asked during the presentations to prepare a short commentary on another student’s paper, and for that reason you will need to be able to read them in advance. Second, this gives you enough time to be able to prepare your presentation.

    I do not precisely specify the length required for this paper, but I would be surprised if you can write a high-quality, master’s level research paper in less than 7 or 8 pages (double-spaced), and I would be equally surprised if you need more than 15 pages (double-spaced) to make your point.

Schedule and Readings

  • February 5: Introduction to Values in Science

    Readings: Heather Douglas, “Origins of the Value-Free Ideal for Science,” from Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (2009)
    [optional, for more contemporary background] Heather Douglas, “Values in Science,” from the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Science (2016)
    [optional, but recommended (and chilling) as an example of the value-free ideal] Edward Teller’s letter to Leo Szilard about their moral responsibility for the atomic bomb (1945)

  • February 12: Introduction to Philosophy of Technology

    Readings: for debate, read either this: Mario Bunge, “Technology as Applied Science” (1966)
    or this: Henryk Skolimowski, “The Structure of Thinking in Technology” (1966)
    and everyone read this: Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” (1980)

  • February 19: Introduction to Privacy

    Readings: Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky, “Privacy in the Age of Big Data: A Time for Big Decisions,” 64 Stanford Law Review Online 63–69 (2012)
    David W. Shoemaker, “Self-Exposure and Exposure of the Self: Informational Privacy and the Presentation of Identity,” Ethics and Information Technology 12(1):3–15 (2010)
    [optional, for the US legal context and more on the right to privacy] Wade L. Robison, “Privacy and Personal Identity,” Ethics & Behavior 7(3):195–205 (1997)

  • February 26: Surveillance and Big Data

    Readings: danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Six Provocations for Big Data,” conference paper from A Decade in Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, Oxford Internet Institute (2011)
    Shoshana Zuboff, “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization,” Journal of Information Technology 30(1):75–89 (2015)
    [optional, for the legal perspective on anonymizing data] Paul Ohm, “Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization,” 57 UCLA Law Review 1701–1777 (2010)

  • March 5: Denialism and Agnotology

    Readings: Robert N. Proctor, “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study),” from Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2008)
    Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, “The Denial of Global Warming,” from Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010)
    [optional, for more information on contemporary climate science] Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” from Climate Change: What it Means for Us, Our Children, and our Grandchildren (2007)

  • March 12: Capitalism and Science

    Readings: Philip Mirowski, “The Modern Commercialization of Science is a Passel of Ponzi Schemes” (2010)
    [optional, but recommended because really, really cool] Trevor Pinch, “Giving Birth to New Users: How the Minimoog Was Sold to Rock and Roll,” in Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, eds., How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies (2005)

  • March 19: Feminist Philosophy of Science

    Readings: Read one or both of:
    [for a particular application] Sarah S. Richardson, “When Gender Criticism Becomes Standard Practice: The Case of Sex Determination Genetics,” in Londa Schiebinger, ed., Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering (2008)
    [for a broader overview] Kathleen Okruhlik, “Gender and the Biological Sciences,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 24(Suppl 1):21–42 (1994)

  • March 26: Ethics of Robotics

    Readings: Wendell Wallach, Colin Allen, and Iva Smit, “Machine Morality: Bottom-Up and Top-Down Approaches for Modelling Human Moral Faculties” (2008)
    [optional, for the example of self-driving cars] Sven Nyholm, “The Ethics of Crashes with Self-Driving Cars: A Roadmap,” parts I and II (2018)
    [optional, for the example of military robotics] Kenneth Anderson and Matthew Waxman, “Law and Ethics for Robot Soliders” (2012)

  • April 2: Research Ethics and Dual-Use

    Readings: Nicholas Evans, “Dual-Use Decision Making: Relational and Positional Issues” (2014)
    Karl Lautenschläger, “Controlling Military Technology” (1985)

  • April 9, April 16: no class, Spring Break

  • April 23: Workshop Planning Day

  • April 30: Workshop 1

  • May 7: Workshop 2

  • May 14: Workshop 3