HPS 400 A: Colloquium In The History And Philosophy Of Science

HPS 400 A: Colloquium In The History And Philosophy Of Science

Focal topic for Winter 2015:  AGNATOLOGY
Historical and Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Ignorance

Instructors: Bruce Hevly (History) and Alison Wylie (Philosophy & Anthropology)

Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic. Indeed the horizon of the unknown recedes as we approach it.  (The Encylopedia of Ignorance 1977)

Historians and philosophers of science have traditionally been concerned with knowledge: what counts as scientific knowledge, how it is produced and ratified, whether its authority is warranted, whose interests it serves, whether it is distinctive or in what ways it is continuous with everyday, practical understanding. Recently, however, they have turned their attention to questions about ignorance. This is the topic on which we focus for this year's offering of HPS 400, the capstone seminar for the major in History and Philosophy of Science. 

There are a number of motivations for this turn to ignorance, for example: how are we to understand knowledge if we don’t understand ignorance, ask the proponents of “agnotology” – the study of ignorance? Others observe that science is itself produces ignorance as well as knowledge, and that contexts of reception and use have an enormous impact on what knowledge gets produced and credited as scientific. Robert Proctor, who coined the term “agnatology,” distinguishes between ignorance as an active construct – “ignorance made, maintained and manipulated by science” – and ignorance that arises as a passive construct, an unintended consequence of other choices made in the course doing research. In this seminar we examine research on ignorance of both kinds.

To situate this emerging body of HPS research on ignorance we begin by considering some antecedent work on “values in science” and arguments for pluralism that set the stage for recognizing the ways in which scientific inquiry is inevitably selective and, in various sense, partial. We draw on Arthur Fine’s Shaky Game. We anchor the seminar as a whole in readings drawn from Agnotology (2008), the collection of essays edited by Proctor and Schiebinger that brought the topic of ignorance to prominence. And at the end of the quarter we focus on a particular sustained study of ignorance by Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt (2010).

This course is required for students in History and Philosophy of Science, but we welcome non-majors who have a background in history and/or philosophy of science (HIST 311/312, PHIL 160/460), and graduate students who have an interest in HPS.


This course will be run as a seminar with the emphasis on discussion. Each student will be expected to lead at least one seminar discussion in the course of the quarter. Written assignments will include reading responses posted online and one term paper of roughly 20 pages undertaken with the advice of the instructors.



Articles available through electronic course reserve; the following texts available at the bookstore:

  • Arthur Fine, The Shaky Game: Einstein, Realism, and the Quantum Theory, 2nd edition (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  • Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger (eds.), Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford University Press, 2008).
  • Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

Course Summary:

Date Details