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Rethinking Health Science: IL039/IL139

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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. The responses to the pandemic (e.g. 'lockdowns' and mass vaccinations) have been one of the most significant public health interventions in recent times. From coronavirus briefings to vaccinations, everyone has become aware of the importance of health and medical sciences. This module is inspired by these recent events to ask wider, more general questions about how we all think - and should think - about aspects of the theory and practice of health and medical sciences. It is an opportunity for any undergraduates (from their 2nd year) who are interested in thinking through some fascinating but complex questions.

How do theoretical and practical aspects of scientific research (particularly in health and medical sciences) relate to the wider societies that research is conducted in (e.g. how do biomedical theories about mental disorder impact on wider society)? Viewed as a group of disciplines, how do the sciences relate to other disciplines (e.g. in terms of what constitutes evidence and justification)? Viewed as a group of skilled and specialist activities with correspondingly specialised knowledge, how might scientific research (e.g. regarding a new disease) be most effectively communicated to the public?

This module aims to encourage participants from across the University to start thinking about these and related questions in a systematic way. Drawing on philosophy of science and life sciences, the module will cover some more conceptual, theoretical content (e.g. causation, reductionism, objectivity) and some more applied content (e.g. communicating science, science and authority, collaboration and peer review).

There will be an emphasis on encouraging critical thinking skills and the effective communication and justification of ideas in written form and discussion. To this end, where practicable, students will be encouraged to analyse and present information to each other (e.g. in group discussions or short presentations) and to offer constructive critiques of those positions and presentations.

The module aims to:

  • enable students to understand how social, intellectual and cultural movements have impacted upon the life sciences and medicine and vice versa
  • Facilitate critical consideration of specific concepts and practices relevant to science and medicine (e.g. the concepts of disease, cause, and evidence, and the practice of peer review)
  • Facilitate critical consideration of the benefits and limitations of science and medicine.


The topics this module will cover include interdisciplinarity, causation, reductionism, disease and health, evidence and justification, objectivity, science and authority, and communicating science.

Provisional Programme (subject to change)

Week One: Introduction. General information about the module and interdisciplinarity.

Week Two: Causation. It seems very natural to think that if an event - the cause (e.g. a certain amount of heat) - produces a particular effect (e.g. making water boil), then the same cause, in the same conditions, will always produce the same effect. That is one way of justifying 'laws of nature'. The philosopher David Hume was sceptical about the necessity of causation. Was he right? How might we account for our intuition that the same cause, in the same conditions, will always produce the same effect?

Week Three: Reductionism. In medicine in particular, causal explanations are provided in terms of biological mechanisms and processes. But those biological mechanisms and processes are part of a person, and persons are, arguably, more than just an aggregation of biological mechanisms and processes. How can those kinds of causal explanations be appropriately related to the persons for whom medical care is to be provided?

Week Four: Disease and health. How should we define ‘disease’ and ‘health’? What problems does a purely biological definition of ‘disease’ (e.g. the philosopher Christopher Boorse’s definition) face? What are the alternatives?

Week Five: Evidence and justification. With Leanne Williams (Warwick SLS). Scientific research, including research in life sciences and medicine, requires specialist knowledge and skills. What assumptions need to be made when gathering evidence, and how are results justified (e.g. in clinical trials)?

Week Six: Reading Week. Work on essay topics.

Week Seven: Objectivity. ‘Objectivity’ can mean different things: e.g. mind-independent, viewpoint-independent, or bias-free. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in their 2007 book ‘Objectivity’ chart and critique ‘objectivity’. How is ‘objectivity’ used now, and how should we think of ‘objectivity’?

Week Eight: Science and authority. With Leanne Williams (Warwick SLS, tbc). Scientific research can and has been used to inform public policy. What kind of relationship should scientists have with policy makers and politicians? What kind of authority should scientific expertise be accorded?

Week Nine: Communicating Science. The reported results of scientific research can influence public opinion. How should results be communicated, and how – if at all – can non-scientists be helped to understand and evaluate what is reported? Why might people be suspicious of, or hostile to scientific research, and decisions based on that research? How might those suspicions and hostility be addressed?

Week Ten: Conclusion. Bringing the conceptual and more applied sides of the module together.

Module code:

IL039 - Level 5 (Intermediate)

IL139 - Level 6 (Third year/Finalists)

Module convenor

Photo of Vivan Joseph
Dr. Vivan Joseph (v dot joseph dot 1 at warwick dot ac dot uk)

Class time 2024-25

Term 2 (Spring)
Time: Thursday 14:00 - 16:00


FAB1.06 (Faculty of Arts Building)


See instructions on the main Undergraduate Modules page


15 CATS:

Student Devised Assessment (70%)
Group Presentation (30%)

To find out more about Student Devised Assessments, see IATL's page on Assessment

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