Scientific Method and Policy

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Katie Steele


This course is available on the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

Policy decisions should be responsive to our best evidence. But what does that mean? How should we negotiate conflicting evidence? Can some evidence be disregarded due to cultural and political biases? What should we do when there is little evidence available about the issues at hand?

The course is divided into three main topics.

The first topic concerns the strength and the quality of the available evidence. This is a central issue in the ‘evidence-based’ policy-and-medicine movement. Are randomised controlled trials really the gold standard? Can evidence be statistically significant without being scientifically or practically significant, and vice versa? What is the role of quantitative versus qualitative evidence?

The second topic concerns the relationship between scientific and policy aims. To what extent should individual rights be compromised to enable scientific research? What issues arise when scientists interpret and measure ethically-loaded concepts like poverty, well-being or bio-diversity? How should broader social-political values influence priority-setting in public science?

The final topic concerns the role of the scientist as policy advisor. What is the ‘Precautionary Principle’ and how is it used in policy decision-making? What does it mean to say that there is a scientific consensus? Does expert knowledge of scientists constitute a threat to democratic processes?

Examples referred to in the course are drawn from various areas of science in policy-making, including climate, conservation, international development, poverty, education, medicine, and health.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 3 essays and 1 presentation in the MT and LT.

Indicative reading

A detailed reading list will be provided at the beginning of the course. Useful background readings are: Cartwright, N. and Hardie, J. (2012) Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better; Mackie, J.L. (1980) The Cement of the Universe; Howson, C. and Urbach, P. (1993) Scientific Reasoning: A Bayesian Approach; Kitcher, P. (2011) Science in a Democratic Society; Douglas, H. (2009) Science in Policy-Making: Objectivity, Values, and Risk; Stiglitz, J.E. Sen, A. and Fitoussi, J. (2010) Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn't Add Up.


Exam (67%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (33%, 2000 words) in the ST.

Student performance results

(2010/11 - 2012/13 combined)

Classification % of students
First 32.7
2:1 51
2:2 10.2
Third 6.1
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2012/13: 12

Average class size 2012/13: 6

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills