The specific topics to be covered in the course include the following, which are organized by weekly topic. In addition, some explanatory information is provided to clarify the nature and purpose of the topics.
Comment: As in all extraordinary claims discussed in the Foundations of Sciences course, students will not be told what to believe, rather, they will be asked to look at the evidence and critically examine it from a scientific perspective that includes information relevant to the topic. Students will learn that the truth of a claim may be measured with a sliding scale of confidence which ranges from definitely true, to probably true, possibly true, probably false, and definitely false. Many of the extraordinary claims that will be examined in the course fall in between the end points of this scale.
Topic 1: The Checks Lab: Exploring What Science Is
This section lays the foundation for the remainder of the course by emphasizing the need for evidence when drawing conclusions, as well as the nature of the scientific method – which is based on empiricism and skepticism. It also emphasizes the point that science progresses incrementally toward a better model of reality and that some conclusions are tentative in nature, whereas others are firmly established. In short, the scientific method allows for progress in our understanding of the world.
Topic 2: Salem's Secrets: A Case Study on Hypothesis Testing and Data Analysis
This and the next section further detail the need for the scientific method which attempts to limit both emotional and perceptual biases through rigorous evaluation of information and by peer review. This lab allows students to consider the evidence available about the Salem Witch Trials and gives them the opportunity to create multiple working hypotheses to explain the events in Salem. It also addresses types of logical errors, and the reliability of claims made by eyewitnesses, and how mass hysteria and the Power of Suggestion can bias entire groups of people. This section helps students understand why how conclusions made without evidence can be not only incorrect, but harmful.
Topic 3: Why Things Aren't Always What They Seem to Be: The Limits of Perception
This section further details the need for evidence when creating hypotheses, and shows how the human brain can incorrectly assess and remember a situation. It also addresses rules of critical thinking, and the reliability of claims made by honest people who may have misperceived what they experienced . Given that the course will evaluate extraordinary claims, this section helps students understand why a skeptical approach to the evaluation of such claims is warranted.
Topic 4: Astronomy and Astrology: Stars, Planets, and Your Sign
This section begins the introduction of scientific information for purposes of evaluating extraordinary claims related to astrology by contrasting the geocentric view of the universe, upon which astrology is based, with the facts of modern astronomy. Students will learn about gravity, spectra, stars, galaxies, the recession of galaxies, and the Big Bang Theory. In the course of this discussion, they will learn about scientific laws and theories.
Topic 5: Star Trek and the Laws of Nature: Can We Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before?
Topics will include some or all of the following: The Possibility of Space Travel, UFOs and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; Area 51 and the Roswell UFO Crash; Crop Circles and Alien Abductions.
During this week of class, the claim that UFOs are possible alien spacecraft will be addressed, as well as claims regarding alien abductions. In preparation of this discussion, students will read a book titled, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, by Harvard psychologist Dr. Susan Clancy (Harvard University Press, 2005). This book also addresses the issues of memory distortion, the need for verifiable evidence, and several other topics discussed during this and the preceding weeks.
Topic 6: The Haunting: Do the Laws of Nature Apply to Paranormal Phenomena?
This section allows for a general discussion of physical laws as they relate to ghosts and other extraordinary claims. This section will help students understand why science cannot deal with supernatural claims, and why skepticism is important. This section includes a discussion of hauntings and allows for a discussion of Newton’s laws as they pertain to claims made regarding ghosts.
Topic 7: Complementary and Alternative Medicines
Topics will include some or all of the following: Psychic Energy, Psychic Powers, Psychic Detectives, Psychic Healers, Nostradamus, Mediums, A Brief History of Psychic Research, ‘Sheep-Goat Effects’, Paranormal Studies and issues with controls and replication.
This section allows for a detailed application of the principles discussed in the first part of the course regarding the scientific method, possible bias, and peer review. Specifically, students are taught the difference between an experiment and a study and the absolute need for control groups when conducting studies. We will also explain the concept of a placebo effect and the way in which it can confound studies. In the process, we will discuss the ways in which ‘treatments’ that don’t work can be harmful. We will also discuss why many ineffective treatments seem to work and why studies often yield inconsistent results. In addition, students will learn how scientific-sounding jargon is often used by advocates of many untested or unproven alternative medicines, such as the ‘Law of Similars’ and the ‘Law of Infinitesimals.’
Topic 8: The Present Is the Key to the Past
During this week of class, the students are introduced to the science of geology, and how to can be used to explore the Earth's history. This section includes information pertaining to relative dating, radiometric dating, the formation of sedimentary rock, and principles of uniformitarianism. This information is intended to help students understand how geologists reconstruct the earth’s history through the application of physical laws and the evidence provided by the stratigraphic record. It also provides a basis for understanding how scientists determined that earth is billions of years old.
Topic 9: Natural Selection
This section introduces students to genetics, genetic change and the evidence for evolution. The principles of natural selection operating on genetic variation will be discussed to help students understand the scientific basis of evolution. Students will conduct an experiment to discern how species change through time because of predation or competition.
Topic 10: Evolution: Why Don't Whales Have Legs?
This section introduces students to vestigial traits, adaptation and how the process of evolution moves forward. Information from geology and paleontology, and instances of speciation will be used to design an experiment that shows how whales became the stream-lined water animals they are today. The principles of natural selection operating on genetic variation will be discussed to help students understand the scientific basis of evolution. Students also will learn that religious and scientific views concerning the origin of the universe and life need not be incompatible and, therefore, that students do not have to choose between science and religion.