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Philosophy of Natural Sciences: Epistemology of Epidemiology


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Natural Sciences

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Psychology

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Knowledge


The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the scientific and societal importance of epidemiology, the study of the determinants and distribution of diseases and other health-related states. This course is an opportunity to study knowledge-theoretical aspects of epidemiology, encompassing ways of knowing, research styles, and the relation between practice, evidence, and theory in this discipline. Central to the discussion will be the practice of mathematical modelling of infectious disease outbreaks: we will study the causal presuppositions of classical epidemiological models, their empirical confirmation and predictive capacity, and how such models resemble and differ from mathematical modelling practices in other natural and social sciences. The course will offer students philosophical tools both to look back at the 2020 pandemic and to understand and evaluate the science of future outbreaks. If facilities have reopened, the course will include a working visit to the exhibition “Besmet!” at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden.

Course objectives

This course aims to:

  • introduce philosophy students to the rudiments of the science of epidemiology;

  • explore epistemological and methodological aspects of epidemiology using the tools of philosophy of science;

  • develop and apply approaches to analyse and assess the practice of mathematical modelling of infectious diseases in a comparative context.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • basic presuppositions, principles, and problems of epidemiology, and especially of mathematical modelling of epidemics;

  • knowledge-theoretical aspects of epidemiology, including ways of knowing, research styles, and the relation between practice, evidence, and theory;

  • sources of confidence and uncertainty in epidemiological knowledge.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • describe and discuss basic elements of epidemiology and especially of classical mathematical models of infectious disease outbreaks;

  • assess epistemological aspects of the findings and practice of epidemiology;

  • critically evaluate policy proposals for responding to pandemics and their public presentation.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Assessment method


  • Paper

  • Abstract

  • Oral presentation


The final mark for the course is established by (i) determination of the weighted average of several subtests combined with (ii) the requirement that all subtests be sufficient.

  • Paper: 75%

  • Abstract, oral presentation 25%


The resit consists of a pape and counts as 100% of the grade. The mark will replace all previously earned marks for subtests.
Class participation and practical assignments (presentation) are mandatory requirements for taking the resit.
Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination(s) cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Research articles and other recent scholarly literature. A list will be circulated at the start of the course.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number, which can be found in the timetables for courses and exams.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. dr. J.W. McAllister


Not applicable.