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Topics in the History of Modern Science and Medicine

Welcome to Topics in the History of Modern Science and Medicine! This is an honours-level discussion-based 1-semester undergraduate course in the history of modern science and medicine. The purpose of this course is to explore an exciting area of current research in the field with members of academic staff whose research relates to the topic, introducing students to the area and developing skills to engage with the latest scholarship.

The 2024 topic, taught by Dr Lukas Engelmann and Dr Michael Barany, is the history of quantification and statistics in the modern world.

Course Outline

Details on the weekly class meeting topics will be posted here.

Week 1. Quantities are People


* Welcome and course outline

  • Population and the history of quantification and information
  • Reading and study approaches
  • Sign-up for student roles

There are two e-books to focus on before our first Thursday morning meeting. For each of these, you should carefully read the introduction in order to understand the author's view of their topic and its relevance. You have understood these when you can sum them up in a few sentences in your notebook without looking at or borrowing any of the authors' text. Then, quickly look through the rest of the book and figure out the answers to the following questions:

  • what major time periods, people, institutions, and events are the focus of the writing?
  • what evidence does the author use to analyse these, and how does the author do so?
  • how is the book structured, and how does the big-picture argument derive from the chapter-level arguments?

You are ready for our discussion when you can answer these questions, at least tentatively. It will be challenging at first, but trust us that you will get a lot better at it and it will prove extremely worthwhile.

After you have prepared in this way, use remaining preparatory time that you have to look in more detail at topics or sections that interested you, and/or explore other readings from the resource list. The short articles by Bouk/Ackermann/boyd and Lemov will be especially helpful for thinking about major upcoming themes in the course. There is plenty of time to return to these later if you don't have a chance to consider them now.

Week 2. Statistical Values


This week Lukas and Michael will demonstrate what goes into your seminar presentations, and we will continue to discuss reading and interpretation approaches.


For Desrosières you should focus on the introduction, chapter 3 and 4 and the conclusion. Accordingly, you want to come to the discussion with a good understanding of the following questions:

  1. What are the coordinates of Desrosières' history of statistics? When and where does this history take place? In particular, see if you can identify the distinct national genealogies of statistics together with where and when they begin to intersect and merge.
  2. What does Desrosières mean with Social Facts and what is the Realism of Aggregates and Causes? (But generally don't worry too much about grasping the epistemic philosophy details; this aspect has been much less of a factor in the work's influence.)

For Deringer, likewise spend some quality time with the introduction and then pick one of the chapters to try to follow the argument in more detail. We suggest chapters 2, 3, or 5 if there is not another one that interests you more; chapter 2 in particular if you are interested in the politics of Scottish independence, and chapter 5 in particular if you are interested in financial speculation. Be prepared to discuss:

  1. What role do numbers and calculations play in Deringer's analysis? How does he contrast his view of numbers and calculation to other historians' views of quantification in politics and economics?
  2. Can you explain the title of the book?

Use the Course Blog link from the university's learning platform for this course to access our collective course blog. By Wednesday, please make a post on the blog with a brief comment on one or both of the core readings. Your comment could be a summary of a key point, a question you have about the reading, or something else. You can also comment on classmates' posts.

Week 3. Economics


The two core readings are from Donald MacKenzie and Mary Morgan. They come to the topic of financial models from different disciplinary perspectives. Pay attention to what each means by models and what methods they use to characterise them. Connecting to the first two weeks' readings, see how precisely you can articulate the place of finance in the history of quantification, and (different but related question) why has finance been so important as subject for historians of quantification?

We will lead the discussion, but please come prepared to engage in the discussions.

As with every week, pay attention to the history you are reading but also pay attention to your approach to reading and try to practice different skills and ways of finding information. How are the books structured? How can you identify the most important features of the subject, context, evidence, methods, and argument? Were there specific parts that were striking, challenging, or important?

Focus on the introductions of both books and see which chapters might be useful to answer these questions.

Please leave a comment, a thought, or any questions on the course blog.

Week 4. Trust and Madness


Both of our books this week are written by Ted Porter. They are written at a different time, serve a different purpose and speak to discrete questions. The first, Trust in Numbers, is an eminent work in the history of quantification, some would say it has single-handedly brought this field of historical inquiry into being. The second book, Genetics in the Madhouse, is by comparison more focussed on a specific history (that of heredity and mental illness) and is also the latest book by Porter.

As always, pay careful attention to the introduction of both works. If you have the time, look for a few reviews of Trust in Numbers (e.g. on Isiscb). For Trust in Numbers it makes sense to browse and read as many chapters as you can to develop an impression of how the book is structured, and to understand what the section titles do for the book's argument. Chapter 2 makes a strong argument on the social power of numbers, chapter 7 is excellent to capture what Porter meant by technologies of trust (risk-benefit analysis) and chapter 8 brings the question back to the structure of (our) scientific communities.

Likewise, for Genetics in the Madhouse, do follow the structure of the book and try to make sense of the way in which Porter has set out his argument. What does it mean to record heredity, what might tabular reason be and how does he define data science?

As before, please leave some words, comments, and/or questions on the blog and please come well-prepared for this first student-led discussion.

Week 5. Health


In addition to our usual questions about our essential readings (what are they about – subjects, places, periodisation, etc. – and what are they arguing and how does this relate to the literature and to the themes we ahve been considering), pay attention to the different forms and epistemologies of quantification in Matthews's book and Radin's article. How do the methods of recording and using quantitative health information relate to different uses and meanings to which those data are put?

The mid-course feedback form is here. Your student login is required to access the form but responses are stored anonymously. You may complete the form any time in the next few weeks, and it is completely optional. Feedback is also accepted by email. We will share responses to the anonymous feedback with the whole class.

Week 6. Chancy Media


The focus of this week is the media theory of quantification and chance, in particular as it relates to human bodies. In addition to the core readings by Hacking and Wernimont you will find a variety of works engaging with different corporeal and material dimensions of our course themes. Hacking and Wernimont's books are both relatively short and each takes an interdisciplinary perspective that is challenging in its own way. So in addition to the core questions we ask about what a work is saying, keep thinking about issues of genre as you make sense of this week's readings.

This week we will talk a bit more about what the assessment involves. If you are already thinking of ideas for what you would like to write about, there will be a chance to share those with the class and get some preliminary reactions and feedback.

Week 7. Democracy


This week we'll discuss what it means to count people in two large and complex countries (focusing on two recent books), as part of a larger discussion about the complexities of enumeration, representation, and politics. We will also continue discussions from last week about your ideas for assessment topics.

Week 8. Climate


Stay tuned for details!

Week 9


Guest discussion with current researcher(s) and discussion of your assessment essay ideas.

Week 10


Guest discussion with current researcher(s) and discussion of your assessment essay ideas.


  • The optional end of course feedback form is here.
  • To be honest, our most useful source of feedback is your self-evaluation in your assessment, so please focus on that and only worry about the form if there is something to add beyond your self-evaluation.
  • The exception to this is: if you have had a positive experience of the course (we hope you have!) then we would be grateful if you would write that in the form of a EUSA Teaching Award nomination. EUSA nominations are directly helpful for careers and recognition for the course organisers, and they also help future students find out about the course! Those of us who teach in semester 2 are at a disadvantage because of the nomination timing and the greater effects of industrial action in semester 2 in recent years, so we (and all your semester 2 teachers) especially welcome this form of feedback.
topics/start.txt · Last modified: 2024/02/12 09:09 by mjb