Science: The Good, the Bad, and the Bogus

This philosophy of science course will explore the nature of scientific knowledge. What makes good science? Is there a scientific method? Why are astrology and creationism widely believed to be pseudo-sciences? Are there other systems of knowledge that are equally valid as scientific knowledge? Contemporary issues such as climate change will be discussed in the context of understanding what makes a particular claim valid and trustworthy.

The biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously said that in science “'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.” We will explore the nature of scientific facts and of knowledge claims in general. What makes the claims of scientists trustworthy? What certainty do we have in scientific predictions such as those in climate science or medical science? How does the practice of science relate to society and how is it influenced by politics?

Rational thought and critical inquiry are hallmarks of science, but they are not exclusive to science. Is there a tension between, say, critical inquiry in the humanities and in science? We will explore the implications of the scientific worldview as it relates to, for example, policy decisions in government, to educational policy in schools and universities, and to moral and political issues.


  • Session 1: A short history of the empiricist tradition in the philosophy of science, ranging from the British empiricists (Locke, Hume, Berkeley) in the 18th and 19th century, to the Vienna Circle in the 20th century.
  • Session 2: This session details the place that Karl Popper (1902-1994) holds in the philosophy of science. He argued that science was inherently an act of falsification: so the aim of science was not to prove theories correct but rather to put them to the test and see if they can be falsified. He argued that if we cannot think of a scenario in which our claim or theory could be shown to be wrong, then that claim or theory is not scientific.
  • Session 3: This session will look at Thomas Kuhn’s (1922-1996) influential theory of the nature of science and of scientific change. Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge does not progress in a linear and continuous way but rather in cycles of paradigm shifts.
  • Session 4: Kuhn’s ideas radically changed the way in which we understood the nature of science and of knowledge. This session will discuss the philosophy of science that came after (and as a direct reaction to) Kuhn. We’ll discuss the explanation Kuhn and his followers gave for why scientists believe in their theories and what it takes to change their minds.
  • Session 5: The second reaction to Kuhn is what has been called the sociology of scientific knowledge. This is often disparaged as a postmodern (mis)understanding of the way science works, and it remains a controversial issue to this day.
  • Session 6: This session will detail the various attempts at demarcating science from non-science or pseudo-science. We’ll discuss Larry Laudan’s famous argument for the demise of the demarcation problem. His claim is that there is no distinction between science and non-science: all there can be is good science and bad science.
  • Session 7: This session will look in detail at the nature of scientific explanation. What makes a particular explanation fruitful and insightful as opposed to one that is uninteresting, vacuous or just plain wrong? Is there a way in which we can compare competing explanations of the same phenomena and show that a particular explanation is better than another?
  • Session 8: This session will discuss the ongoing issue of scientific realism. This refers to the debate about the nature of the entities that science posits but that we do not (yet) have observational evidence for. Historical examples include the germ theory of disease and molecular biology. We’ll discuss what this means in terms of new scientific hypotheses being made today in sciences such as quantum physics and neuroscience.
  • Session 9: We’ll look at contemporary debates regarding the place of science in society and in politics. How should science inform our policy choices? Can governments veto scientific investigations they do not agree with? How can we (or should we) keep science and politics separate?
$250 Limited / $225

<p>This philosophy of science course will explore the nature of scientific knowledge. What makes good science? Is there a scientific method? Why are astrology and creationism widely believed to be

31 Jan

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