Fighting Fake Science (An Introduction to the Vienna Circle and Philosophy of Science) (Seminar)

Lecturer (assistant)
  • Jörg-Wilhelm Wernecke [L]
  • Samuel Pedziwiatr
Duration2 SWS
TermSommersemester 2019
Language of instructionEnglish
Position within curriculaSee TUMonline


Admission information


This course aims to encourage students to critically reflect on the methodological foundations of science. Upon successful completion of this module, students: • have a basic understanding of the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science and see various practical, political, and social implications—particularly on questions concerning responsibility in science and engineering. • are aware of philosophical questions and norms concerning the sciences and learn to reflect critically upon the methodologies of various disciplines. • are familiar with central problems and ideas that the Vienna Circle discussed (e.g. What is the basis of scientific knowledge? What constitutes meaningful sentences? What is the relation between logic and the empirical sciences?) • are familiar with prominent arguments and ideas in philosophy of science concerning the demarcation problem (e.g. Popper’s criterion of falsifiability and the criticisms by Otto Neurath, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos)


This seminar focuses on the problem of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. Which norms and criteria determine what counts as legitimate science as opposed to fraudulent science, charlatanry, science fiction, occultism, or propaganda? How clearly can we draw the boundaries between science, fringe science, and unscientific practices? And how can philosophically reflecting on science and pseudoscience help us understand what it means to perform good research and be responsible scientists in times of “alternative facts” and “fake news”? The first part of the seminar will be devoted to the Vienna Circle and its approach to defining the scientific method in the 1920s and 1930s. We will discuss how this internationally oriented group of philosophers, mathematicians, natural scientists, and social scientists based in Vienna developed a comprehensive scientific world-conception—logical positivism—that was supported by contemporary developments in logic and the philosophy of language. The seminar will also address the socio-political context of these philosophical ideas. Logical positivism was connected to a strongly empiricist outlook and a radical rejection of “metaphysical statements” as meaningless and unscientific. Far from pursuing their philosophical project as an abstract exercise in armchair theorizing, the members of the Vienna Circle considered their scientific world-conception to have a social, emancipatory potential. Many of the Vienna Circle’s members were politically active and publicly promoted science outreach and education programs. The second part of the seminar will turn to more recent debates on the “demarcation problem” in philosophy of science that took place against the background of the Vienna Circle’s ideas. We will critically examine various criteria and standard arguments that have been proposed for distinguishing science from pseudoscience, and will try to assess the potentials and limits of philosophical demarcation principles. At the end of the seminar, we will attempt a broader outlook: How can the ideas of the Vienna Circle and its successors be applied today? How are the norms of today’s emerging and established sciences changing and what does this mean for their legitimacy and scientists’ self-understanding? And finally, what social responsibility do scientists and intellectuals have when it comes to fighting fake science?

Teaching and learning methods

ED0349 and ED0150: 5 ECTS credits CLA 21109: 2 ECTS credits CLA31109: 3 ECTS credits


Students are expected to give a presentation (15 minutes) on an assigned course reading. Grading: ED0349 Core Topic: Epistemology and Ontology (RESET M.A., STS M.A.): research paper (3000-4000 words, 5 ECTS) CLA21109 What Can I Know?—Classics of Epistemology: presentation (2 ECTS) CLA31109: What Can I Know?—Classics of Epistemology: presentation and essay (2000 words, 3 ECTS), weigthed 1:1. ED0150 Philosophy of Science (Advanced Topics): presentation (midterm) and seminar paper (3000 words, 5ECTS)

Recommended literature

Hanen, M., Osler, M., & Weyant, R. (eds.): Science, Pseudo-Science and Society. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.: Waterloo, Ontario, 1980. Grim, P. (ed.): Philosophy of Science and the Occult. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990. Kaufman, A. & Kaufman, J. (eds.): Pseudoscience. The Conspiracy against Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 2018. Additional course readings will be provided in the seminar.