will be part of the solution to every problem in the 21st century - and
it will continue to illuminate humanity and humanity's place in the
means it is not enough for universities to train scientists to do
science. Non-scientists need to be scientifically literate
too. Scientific literacy involves more than knowing something of what
scientists have already learnt. It also involves an appreciation of the
importance of science for daily life, business, politics, our
collective future and our view of ourselves. And, just as importantly,
it involves an ability to evaluate the science reported to
non-scientists and to draw sensible conclusions from it. It is
impossible to do any of that without understanding how scientists grope
and stagger forward, and how their efforts appear in the media. The aim of this course is to make the citizens and leaders of the future better consumers of science.
analogy with literature, dance, wine, food and music appreciation
courses, this is a science appreciation course. The course assumes no
background knowledge. It is not for scientists. It is particularly
suited for students who loathed science at school.
extensive use of controversial case studies, we will help students
develop a critical appreciation of the process of scientific discovery
and its implications.
1. The meaning, use and diversity of the scientific method
difference between good science, bad science, pseudoscience and
everything else; evidence versus conviction; skeptics versus deniers
- Science is both imaginative and highly disciplined
- Science is a very successful way to gain knowledge
is a human endeavor and so is often flawed, yet it can in the long run
draw powerful context- and culture-independent conclusions
- Why it works: organized skepticism.
- What conflicting evidence means and how we can sort it out (not all data are equal)
- Why there is no such thing as absolute proof in science
- What is meant by certainty in science - and how scientists convey it, and why it usually can't be conjured up over night
- What science can and cannot deliver (knowledge and ethics)
- Why it is hard to aim science at a target
3. The societal implications of thinking scientifically
- The impact of science on humanity's view of humanity
- The enormous impact science will continue to have
- The contemporary utility of science for everyday life, for business and for governance
- Science is a civilizing enterprise that generates wonder and awe.
Related themes that bubble up along the way
- Humans have lousy intuition
- The more science reveals about the natural world, the more we realize just how little we know
- Why the public gets confused about science and why scientists get confused about the public
to recognise types of data that are more or less compelling (anecdote
vs double-blind placebo trial; correlation vs causation)
- Ability to distinguish more and less reliable sources of information
- Ability to critically appraise science in the media
- Abililty to think probabilistically: risk, likelihood, error rates, degree of certainty
is delivered by case studies of controversies within science and/or the
public domain, some of which are resolved, some of which are not. The
course begins by illustrating general principles by studying arguments
now largely resolved, but which still resonate, such as child health and
IQ, and how we came to know smoking is bad for us. The remainder of
the course focuses on unresolved scientific controversies, many chosen
by the class, which might include climate change, personalized genetic
medicine, passive smoking, nanotechnology, vaccination, the scientific
evaluation of the healing power of prayer, or deer management in
Pennsylvania. The course ends with discussion of paradigm shifts that
have occurred during the students' lifetimes, particularly those
involving our view of ourselves and our universe.
the focus is on unresolved scientific issues in the contemporary media:
why it is in the news, what are the scientists involved actually doing
and arguing about, and how is the media is handling the science?
For more on the teaching philosophy, see the Instructor Blog. I summarize my thinking in this article in the Journal of General Education.
Course students should use the SC200 Angel site for syllabus, class materials, tests and exams.