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Prof Robert Northcott

  • Overview



    I began at Birkbeck in the summer of 2011, and from 2017 to 2020 was Head of Department. Before that, I taught for six years at the University of Missouri-St Louis. I received my PhD from the London School of Economics. Before switching to philosophy, I did graduate work in economics, receiving an MSc, and undergraduate work in mathematics and history.

    Away from academia, I have won money at tournaments in poker, pool, and foosball/table football. In my LSE days, I was captain of the University Challenge TV quiz team, reaching the grand final. More recently, I made my first ever hole-in-one in golf and also at last began to break 80.

    Web profiles

    Professional activities

    Honorary Secretary, British Society for the Philosophy of Science


  • Research


    Research overview

    I am currently working on a book, tentatively titled 'Science in a Fragile World', about how to investigate a world in which laws and causal relations are intermittent and unpredictable. I think that:

    1) Much of our world is like this, especially once we venture outside the confines of laboratories and engineered artefacts. It includes many of the issues that we care most about: war, environmental damage, pandemics, elections, and more.

    2) These issues need to be investigated by historian-like detailed case studies. Unfortunately, familiar methods such as experiments are less useful, because their results cannot be relied on to generalize. There is a premium on accurate prediction, even though (in fact because) in messy cases it is difficult. Broadly speaking, I argue for more emphasis on local empirical work and less on development of abstract theory. 

    This book project is the culmination of a longstanding interest in how knowledge is produced in these messy cases. What is the relation between the theoretical development of abstract models, and progress in terms of better predictions and explanations of real-world events? When can we rest content with after-the-fact explanation, and when should we insist instead on accurate prediction? What kind of knowledge do we really have if we can't predict well?

    Although my research is mainly in philosophy of science, I have also written extensively on related themes in metaphysics, especially the notions of causation and causal explanation. These various strands connect when, for instance, analysing the use of statistical techniques to measure causation. I have also applied some of this causal training to debates around several other philosophical issues, including scientific progress, harm, innateness, and free will.

  • Supervision and teaching

    Supervision and teaching


    Current doctoral researchers



    Teaching modules

    • Philosophy of Science (Level 7) (SSPL109S7)
    • Research in Theoretical Philosophy (SSPL157S7)
    • Research in Theoretical Philosophy (SSPL157S7)
    • Research in Practical Philosophy (SSPL158S7)
    • Knowledge and Reality (SSPL234S4)
    • Knowledge and Reality (SSPL234S4)
    • Critical Thinking (Level 6) (SSPL241S6)
    • Evolution, Science and Morality (Level 5) (SSPL247S5)
    • Philosophy of Science (Level 5) (SSPL285S5)
  • Publications



    Book Section

    • Northcott, Robert (2023) Prediction, history, and political science. In: Kincaid, H. and Van Bouwel, J. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Political Science. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780197519806. (In Press)
    • Northcott, Robert (2021) Economic theory and empirical science. In: Heilmann, C. and Reiss, J. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Economics. Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy. Routledge. ISBN 9781138824201. (In Press)
    • Northcott, Robert and Alexandrova, A. (2015) Prisoner's dilemma doesn't explain much. In: Peterson, M. (ed.) The Prisoner's Dilemma. Classic Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 64-84. ISBN 9781107621473.
    • Northcott, Robert (2012) Genetic traits and causal explanation. In: Plaisance, K.S. and Reydon, T.A.C. (eds.) Philosophy of Behavioral Biology. Boston Studies in Philosophy of Science. London, UK: Springer. pp. 65-82. ISBN 9789400719507.
    • Northcott, Robert (2012) How necessary are randomized controlled trials?. In: Munson, R. (ed.) Intervention and Reflection: Basic Issues in Bioethics (9th Edition). Independence, U.S.: Cengage. pp. 187-191. ISBN 9781133587149.
    • Northcott, Robert (2012) Partial explanations in social science. In: Kincaid, H. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science. Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 130-153. ISBN 9780195392753.
    • Northcott, Robert (2010) Bad luck or the ref's fault?. In: Richards, T. (ed.) Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game. Popular Culture and Philosophy. Chicago, USA: Open Court. pp. 319-326. ISBN 9780812696769.
    • Northcott, Robert and Alexandrova, A. (2009) Progress in economics. In: Kincaid, H. and Ross, D. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Economics. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 306-337. ISBN 9780195189254.
    • Northcott, Robert (2006) The irrational game: why there's no perfect system. In: Bronson, E. (ed.) Poker and Philosophy: Pocket Rockets and Philosopher Kings. Chicago, USA: Open Court Publishing Company. pp. 105-115. ISBN 9780812695941.