Ethical Issues In Physics

PHY 406/ PHY 507

Winter 2020

Instructor: Marshall Thomsen  Strong 240F   487-8794

Office hours:  MW 8:30-9:15 and 2-3; TT 12-3:15

Discussion: CRN 22963 Tuesday 3:30-4:20 PM  Strong 209

WEB SITE:       

The purpose of this course is to acquaint you with ethical issues a career physicist may face and to place these issues in the more general context of the nature of science.  We will examine professional scientific ethics and what to do when ethical principles conflict.  The case studies we will use come primarily from the physics community.  You will have weekly reading assignments, and you will be expected to participate actively in classroom discussion.  Reading assignments will usually be available online.


This term, we are joined by some students with a range of science backgrounds, so some areas of discussion will be broadened to accommodate their interests.



Class Participation/Group Discussion (25%): You will be expected to arrive on time for class, to be attentive, and to participate in a meaningful and respectful way in the discussion.


Quizzes (25%): There will a short, multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of many classes.  Quizzes will be collected five minutes after the beginning of class, with no exceptions for late students.  This portion of your grade will be based on the average of those quizzes.  The quizzes will cover the reading assignment due for that week.  You may consult any notes that you have written or typed, but you may not consult the weekly readings during the quiz.  The goal of these quizzes is to encourage familiarity with the material, not to require excessive memorization.  An alternative quiz or assignment will be provided for any student who misses a quiz and can provide an acceptable and documented excuse.


Panel Discussion (20%): You will be assigned to a panel of four or five people for one of the three panel discussions listed on the schedule.  Each member of the panel will need to locate some reading material with content relevant to the topic and of length comparable to our usual reading assignments.  Each panel member should select different reading material.  Two weeks prior to the discussion date, each member must submit his/her reading selection to me for approval.


On the day of the panel discussion, each member should turn in to me:

During the panel discussion, each member will give a five-minute overview of their reading selection and of ethical issues it raises. The panel discussion will conclude with questions posed by other class members.


Final Essay (30%): The first submission of this essay is due on March 17 and is worth 5% of your final grade.  The final version is due on April 7 and is worth 25% of your final grade.  The topic and other details will be announced later.


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Other notes:

In addition to the articulated course specific policies and expectations, students are responsible for understanding all applicable University guidelines, policies, and procedures. The EMU Student Handbook is the primary resource provided to students to ensure that they have access to all university policies, support resources, and student's rights and responsibilities. Changes may be made to the EMU Student Handbook whenever necessary, and shall be effective immediately, and/or as of the date on which a policy is formally adopted, and/or on the date specified in the amendment. Please note: Electing not to access the link provided below does not absolve a student of responsibility. For questions about any university policy, procedure, practice, or resource, please contact the Office of the Ombuds: 248 Student Center,, or visit the website: 

CLICK HERE to access the University Course Policies


Student Handbook Link

Graduate School Policies



Given the discussion nature of this course, your full attention is expected during class period.  Please refrain from using electronic devices for anything not of immediate relevance to the discussion. Students are expected to display courtesy and respect when interacting with fellow classmates.  Those not doing so will be asked to leave.


Academic dishonesty (such as cheating on a quiz or plagiarizing material) is incompatible with a learning environment and will be treated in accordance with University policy, including sanctions ranging from a zero on the assignment to failure in the course and referral to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.


The instructor reserves the right to make changes in this syllabus.  YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL CHANGES TO THE SYLLABUS (INCLUDING CHANGE OF DUE DATES) THAT ARE ANNOUNCED IN CLASS.    


The library has electronic subscriptions to Science and Engineering Ethics and to Physics Today.  If you access these periodicals through the library website, you should not have to pay a fee to download the articles.


Tentative Course Outline


The Nature of Science and of Ethics in Science


Introduction; first case study


The Nature of Science and Scientific Ethics (“Science for All Americans.  Chapter1: The nature of science.”  AAAS.  See


General Ethical Principles: “Philosophical Foundations of Scientific Ethics”  by David Resnik at

And watch this short video: Professional Ethics in Engineering, Part 9: Overview of Moral Theories





Codes of ethics:  Read the American Physical Society Guidelines on Ethics (19.1) (2019) Then read The American Institute of Professional Geologists Code of Ethics and The American Institute of Biological Sciences Statement on Ethics (revised March 22, 2002), Finally, read all Canons of the American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics at


Research Issues


Research Misconduct and Data Management.

Read Physics Today 55, 11, 15 (2002); on Schön and “Ten Simple Rules for Data Storage” 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005097




Read “Publication Practices in Physics”  (


In the second reading, read through the first 6 pages and then skim up through Guideline 8—if you understand the guideline, you do not need to read the supporting material.

Panel I readings due



Data Analysis: The Millikan Oil Drop Experiment (“Data Selection and Responsible Conduct: Was Millikan a Fraud?” by Richard C. Jennings.  Science and Engineering Ethics Volume 10 Number 4 pp. 639-653 (2004))


Winter Break


Panel Discussion I: Misconduct in Science (e.g., Rusi Taleyarkhan, Victor Ninov, Pattium Chiranjeevi)



Teaching Issues


“Pathological Science” by Irving Langmuir.  See Physics Today 1989 Issue 10 Pages 36-48.

Panel II readings due



In class discussion on underrepresented populations in physics


Panel Discussion II: Helping Students Find Reliable Sources of Information on Science



Societal Issues


“Communicating the Science of Climate Change” by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol. Physics Today October 2011 p. 48ff.



Case Study Discussions

Panel III, IV readings due


 “From Stratospheric Ozone to Climate Change: Historical Perspective on Precaution and Scientific Responsibility” by Gérard Mégie and Robert McGinn in Science and Engineering Ethics Volume 12 Number 4 pp. 596-606 (2006).



Final exam day Thursday 3:00-4:30 Final Exam Day—Panel discussion and closing writing assignment

Panel Discussion III: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Climate Modeling.