Nerve cell

Philosophy of knowledge in our contemporary media environment

Module details

  • Offered to 3rd & 4th Years
  • Thursdays 16.00-18.00
  • South Kensington Campus 
  • 2 term module worth 7.5 ECTS
  • Extra Credit or Degree Credit where your department allows
Degree credit module options by departmentHow to enrol

We seem to live in a world where more and more is known and less and less is certain. The very abundance of information around us makes it harder reach a stable consensus on anything. Everyone seems to agree that 90% of what is reported is nonsense – no-one seems to agree on what that other 10% is or where or how to find it.

The problem of how you know what you think you know is a matter of both ancient philosophical speculation and urgent contemporary debate and we will be looking at both. Despite endless instructions to ‘think for oneself’, knowledge is necessarily a collective business. Trusting only what we see with our own eyes is a recipe for ignorance. But who to trust? Or rather, what social arrangement, what system of collective discovery and verification should society have in place?

We will be looking at the social philosophy of knowledge and asking fundamental questions about the best social arrangement for finding truth in a post-truth world. Are the many wiser than the few? Should we trust the people or the experts? Should we trust institutions like Wikipedia and why? Should we trust institutions like Imperial College and why? How can our knowledge of the world go wrong in paranoid conspiracy theories, information bubbles, market panics? How can we make it go right? How can we practice truthful information citizenship in a world of crumbling consensus?

Information blocks

Learning outcomes

  • Distinguish in discussion with peers and facilitator between different forms of knowledge verification
  • Compare and assess in class and assessments competing claims to knowledge
  • Use group research through assignments to identity optimum arrangements for collective reasoning
  • Build an effective news and information structure around themselves, revealed through analytical essay and oral presentation
  • Act as active data-citizens in a world of complex and conflicting claims

Indicative core content

  • Should we trust sources like Wikipedia and why? Should we trust sources like Imperial College and why? How is the truth affected by social and political power? What benefits and threats to the truth are presented by contemporary electronic media?
  • What place in the debate should be given to scientific heterodoxies like HIV-AIDS denialism? Climate change denialism?
  • We will look at the concept of collective intelligence or, more pejoratively, ‘group-think’ and different theories from history that seek to explain it. The madness of crowds (Mackay) and the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki): are crowds better at thinking and knowing than individuals? I hope to try to recreate in class time some classic experiments in collective thinking like Francis Galton’s fair-ground ox experiment etc.
  • We will look at social constructivist theories of knowledge asking whether there are some beliefs that are true because people believe them rather than the other way round. We will do this through a range of reflexive beliefs and possible self-fulfilling prophecies from economics, psychology, politics etc.

Assessment

  • Analytical essay (50%)
  • Oral presentation (30%)
  • Video, sound or graphic work (20%)

Key information

  • Requirements: Students are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 2-3 hours of private study or reading each week in addition to the assessment
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 6 course.  See Imperial Horizons level descriptors [pdf]
"Hands down the best module I've done this year. Really enjoyed the course, helped me really connect to popular culture in a way that I have wanted for a long time. Essays were interesting topics and some of the work I'm most proud of, a sign of a really stimulating course!"
"Very intellectually stimulating course, would recommend to others."
"The interactive sessions with practical demonstrations of phenomena are educational fun!"
"Amazing module... It has far exceeded my expectations. It has really developed by understanding of culture, society, people, ideas, discourse... The conversations are fascinating, and on multiple occasions the two hours of the session fly by leaving me disappointed that it's over."