PH458      Half Unit
Evidence and Policy

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Ioannis Votsis


This course is compulsory on the MPhil/PhD in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is available on the MSc in Economics and Philosophy, MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy, MSc in Philosophy of Science and MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Although the emphasis throughout will be on ideas rather than formal techniques and although all the ideas will be explained simply and intuitively, some of the evidence relevant for policy is evidence about probabilities and so the course will involve issues about the correct interpretation of  probability and statistics. Although no detailed formal manipulations will be required, students will need to feel happy thinking about the intuitive ideas underlying probability and statistics.

Course content

Good policy decisions - whether concerning climate, conservation, international development, poverty, education, medicine, or health - require rational deliberation over whether the proposed policy will (or is likely to) bring about the intended outcome. Will lowering CO2 emissions reduce global warming? Will mass mammography decrease the number of deaths from breast cancer? Will making a drug available on the NHS have (as a rule) a positive effect on patients? Will smaller class sizes enhance scholastic achievement? The obvious suggestion is that answers to such questions are the result of rational deliberation just in case they are based on good evidence and appropriate reasoning. But what counts as good evidence and appropriate reasoning? And what happens when different kinds of evidence pull in opposite directions? Are certain types of evidence more telling than others? And if so, why? Does evidence that the policy works in one country mean that we should have confidence that it will work in another country? If there can be no guarantee of success, will the given policy at least increase the probability of the desired outcome? These are some of the central issues addressed in the course. It might seem initially that only experts, only scientists involved in the field, can tell what counts as good evidence and appropriate reasoning. Yet even experts are susceptible to error. In this course, you can learn how to be ‘evidence-savvy’, how to ask the right questions about evidence and reasoning as well as how to think about risk-assessment and its relation to policy.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the MT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the LT.

Indicative reading

A detailed reading list will be provided at the beginning of the course. Useful initial readings are: Gigerenzer, G. (2002) Reckoning with Risk: Learning to Live with Uncertainty;  Cartwright, N. and Hardie, J. (2012) Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better; Worrall, J. (2007) 'Evidence in Medicine and Evidence-Based Medicine', Philosophy Compass.


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

Student performance results

(2014/15 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 33.3
Merit 41.7
Pass 25
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2016/17: 23

Average class size 2016/17: 22

Controlled access 2016/17: No

Lecture capture used 2016/17: Yes (MT)

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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