Philosophy of Science and Ethics

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Doel vak

At the end of this course you will be able to

1. Explain several basic concepts, problems and debates in
a. philosophy of science: problem of demarcation, problem of induction,
research integrity, scientific paradigm, scientific explanation and
reduction, and values in science, among others.
b. bioethics: consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, care ethics,
moral judgment and argument, duties versus rights, responsible research,
individual autonomy, public health ethics, paternalism, and the
normative dimension of definitions of health/disease and
normal/abnormal, among others.
2. Understand the importance of these debates to contemporary biomedical
3. Analyze and evaluate
a. the different positions in these debates
b. the normative assumptions inherent in scientific research
4. Give examples of lack of research integrity and propose coping
5. Read and analyze philosophical texts.

Furthermore, in this course you further develop your academic attitude
(one of the main academic skills). You will
6. be capable of critical reasoning
7. have insight in and be able to reflect on philosophical, ethical and
societal developments in biomedical science

Inhoud vak

This course covers two major areas in philosophy, namely philosophy of
science and (bio)ethics, in an unconventional way. We will engage with
three designated ‘themes’ that are relevant both to biomedical research
(and medical practice) and to society at large and in which questions
from both areas of philosophy are paramount. As such, the course doesn’t
provide a traditional overview of philosophy of science and bioethics,
but let’s you get acquainted with both areas in philosophy by exploring
their relevance to your own field of study and to society at large.

The themes:

Theme I – Don’t fool yourself
The title of this theme comes from a quote by noble-laureate and
physicist Richard Feynman, uttered during a speech on research integrity
in 1974: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you
are the easiest person to fool.” Research integrity is, par excellence,
a topic where ethics meets philosophy of science: what kind of
enterprise is science such that it is vulnerable to “sloppy science”?
What kind of responsibility is attached to doing science? What makes it
so difficult to do “good” science?

At first, research integrity seemed to be a problem of just a few
individuals: the so-called “bad apples”. Think, for example, of Diederik
Stapel and Scott S. Rueben. Recently, the focus has shifted from
irresponsible behavior by a few individuals to systematic problems in
the way science works. Isn’t it a systematic problem that there is so
much competition for funding, publications, and tenured positions? And
what should we think about the connection between biomedical research
and the pharmaceutical industry? Is the truth up for sale?

Theme II – Science and Society
This theme encompasses three subthemes:
» Individual autonomy versus public health: Is it an individual duty to
take part in the national vaccine program? Is it morally justified to,
in the name of public health, vaccinate an individual against their
will? To what extent is it permissible for the government to steer
people’s diet choices? And how do we investigate whether something is a
public health issue?
» The role of science in society: are beliefs and policies based on
science better than beliefs and policies that are based on other kinds
of considerations (moral, religious, traditional, common sense)? Why
would these beliefs and policies be better? Are they established in a
special way? Or more certain? And are there questions that are deemed
important for society, but that are beyond the reach of science?
» The role of society in science: traditionally, science is portrayed as
a rational enterprise: the aim is truth, the use are objective methods,
and the data reveal which theory is better than the other. This view of
science changed when historians and sociologists started to investigate
the actual historical development of science and the actual scientific
practice in laboratories and research meetings. Is it possible to obtain
objective data or are data invariably contaminated by theoretical
assumptions? Is science a social construct? Is science just another
stage for Machiavellian power play?

Theme III – Because you have ADHD
In the Netherlands, from 2003-2013, the prescriptions of Ritalin
(methylphenidate) for age-group 4-18 years has quadrupled. Why is this?
Some claim that the increase in medication use can be explained by,
first, the increase in knowledge of ADHD and medication, and secondly,
the improvements in recognition of ADHD. Others, however, dispute this
simplistic picture and claim that an interplay of scientific, societal,
and commercial forces drive the upsurge in ADHD diagnosis and medication
use. We will investigate these two different approaches. On the one
hand, we will discuss questions about the medical nature of ADHD: Can
science discover what ADHD is? Is it possible to give an objective
definition of ADHD? And does it matter whether ADHD is a brain disease?
On the other hand, we will discuss the social nature of ADHD: How is it
determined whether certain cognition and behavior is normal or abnormal?
What are the consequences of the everyday usage of phrases as ‘you are
hyperactive because you have ADHD’? And who benefits from diagnosing
children and adults with ADHD?


This course has a study load of 6 EC, which means around 168 hours of
work. Teaching consists of 2-hour lectures (9 in total) and 2-hour
seminars (9 in total). Total contact hours: 36. The course is 4 weeks,
but since the final exam is on Monday, you really have only 3 weeks.
This means around 40 hours of self-study per week.


*Quiz 1: Friday June 8th
Three multiple choice questions on the material of Theme I.
For each wrong answer, you lose three points.
(1 wrong answer = 7, 2 wrong answers = 4, 3 wrong answers = 1)

*Quiz 2: Friday June 15th
Two open questions on the material of Theme II.
For each question, there will be three criteria. For each failed
criteria, you lose three points.

*Debate: Wednesday June 20th
In the first week, you will receive the Debate Assignment with
information on how you can prepare for the debate.

*Final Exam: Monday June 25th 8:45-11:15
Ten multiple choice questions and 5 open questions on all material
(readings, lectures, seminars).

The grading procedure will be as follows (e.g.):
» Quiz 1 15%
» Quiz 2 15%
» Debate
» Exam 70%

A minimum score of 5.5 for the quizes and the exam, and a pass for the
debate is
required in order to pass.


1. PS: Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction
(Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002, 2016 2nd edition). (purchase)
2. EB: Gary Seay and Susana Nuccetelli, Engaging Bioethics: An
Introduction with Case Studies (New York: Routledge, 2017). (owned by VU
library, online access)
3. Seminal articles, both classical and contemporary, from philosophy of
science and from ethics. (canvas)
4. Popular writing and reports relevant to the different themes.


Compul;sory course for 2nd year students Biomedical Sciences.

Afwijkende intekenprocedure

Workgroups will be formed in Canvas.

Algemene informatie

Vakcode AB_1217
Studiepunten 6 EC
Periode P6
Vakniveau 300
Onderwijstaal Engels
Faculteit Faculteit der Bètawetenschappen
Vakcoördinator dr. P. Robichaud
Examinator dr. P. Robichaud
Docenten dr. P. Robichaud

Praktische informatie

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