LFILO 2970: Seminarium: Ethics in Science/Society Relations

Website under construction for 2Q, 2018–2019; last updated on January 9, 2019

Professor: Charles H. Pence
Office Hours: Collège Mercier, b.214, Thursday, 14h30–16h30 and Friday, 9h30–11h30
Course Time: Tuesday, 8h30–10h30, ERAS 70
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

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). We will close with a few sessions on particular problems raised by modern digital technologies of “big data,” and their attendant worries about the right to privacy.

A few things about this structure, however. First, I have proposed these topics only because I believe them to be particularly exciting exemplars of contemporary research on the ethics of science. If the group as assembled decides that some of them are not important, we can easily remove them – or if we decide that some of them are more important, we can add days treating any of them in more depth. Secondly, this material only covers eight of our eleven course meetings. The final three will cover topics based on student interest, that we will construct together over the first few meetings of the class.

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 Presentation (30%): We will schedule an in-class workshop during the examination period, consistent with all students’ schedules. At this workshop, all students will be expected to offer a twenty-minute presentation on their work, followed by a twenty-minute question and answer session on your work. (Timing subject to change depending on scheduling and length of the overall workshop.)

  • Participation and Attendance (20%): 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.

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

Schedule and Readings

  • February 5: Introduction: The Value-Free Ideal

    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: canceled, Prof. Pence away for conference

  • February 19: Values in Scientific Practice

    Readings: Thomas Kuhn, “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice,” from The Essential Tension (1977)
    Richard Rudner, “The Scientist qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments,” Philosophy of Science 20(1):1–6 (1953)

  • February 26: “Sound Science” and Policy: Climate Change

    Readings: 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 5: canceled, Prof. Pence away giving talk

  • March 12: Agnotology: The Cultivation of Ignorance

    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)
    [optional, for a perspective from rhetoric and communication] Leah Ceccarelli, “Manufactured Scientific Controversy: Science, Rhetoric, and Public Debate,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14(2):195–228 (2011)

  • 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: Science and Capitalism

    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)

  • April 2: 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)

  • April 9, April 16: spring break

  • April 23: The Right 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)

  • April 30: (student choice)

    Readings: to be announced

  • May 7: (student choice)

    Readings: to be announced

  • May 14: (student choice)

    Readings: to be announced