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The Course

Have you ever wondered if Big Foot exists? Whether UFO’s are visiting the earth? Why people claim to have been abducted by aliens? Whether ‘crystal power’ is real? If so, then the Foundations of Science course would be of interest to you. This innovative science course will use scientific information and scientific reasoning to examine a wide range of extraordinary claims pertaining to these and other topics. Through an examination of these topics, students will learn some of the basic principles and theories from many different disciplines of science. Student learning will focus upon the nature of science, the scientific method, how to more reliably evaluate evidence, and how to avoid common errors in reasoning. This is in contrast to traditional science classes which focus on the details of a specific science.

 

The course will combine traditional lectures with the examination of case studies. This is known as a Case Study approach to learning, in which students evaluate a variety of science-related ‘cases’ involving extraordinary claims. Research shows that students tend to express more interest, become more involved in their courses, and learn new material better via the Case Study approach. This 4-credit, lecture and lab, course is completely unlike any science course currently taught at SHSU, but it WILL count toward the Core Curriculum science credit for non-science majors. It will have a lecture and a lab, but the lab will be based to a large extent on discussions and activities designed to engage student interest.

 

Weekly Topics

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.

 

Week 1: Why Evidence and Reason Matter: The Nature of Science

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.

 

Week 2: Why Things Aren't Always What They Seem to Be: Errors in Reasoning and the Limits to Perception and Memory

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. It also addresses rules of critical thinking, types of logical errors, 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.

 

Week 3: Why Things Aren't Always What They Seem to Be: Errors in Reasoning and the Limits to Perception and Memory

Topics may include some of all of the following: The Case of Satanic Cults and Recovered Memories, and How Memories Can be Altered and Created

 

This section is a further elaboration on the ideas just mentioned for purposes of explicitly demonstrating that a failure to follow the rules of thinking can lead to tragic consequences. It also emphasizes that our memories are not as reliable as we tend to think and would like them to be and, therefore, why we need to guard against this source of error through the use of the scientific method.

 

Week 4: Astronomy and Astrology: Stars, Planets, Galaxies, The Big Bang 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.

 

Week 5: UFO's and Einstein: The Size of the Universe and Cosmic Speed Limits

Topics will include some or all of the following: UFOs and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; Area 51 and the Roswell UFO Crash; Crop Circles; Alien Abductions; Fantasy Pronenes; the Hypnagogic state; Mass Hysterias and the Power of Suggestion.

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.

 

UFO images

 

Week 6: Energy and Heat: Perpetual Motion Machines, Firewalking and the Laws of Nature

This section allows for a continuation of a general discussion of physical laws as they relate to heat, temperature, entropy and extraordinary claims. This section will help lay part of the foundation for the discussion of evolution.

 

Weeks 7-8: Science and the Paranormal: Problems with Controls, Replication, Sufficiency and Honesty

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.

Some of the most common claims made on TV shows and elsewhere relate to alleged paranormal phenomena that, if they occur, would seem to violate our current understanding of the laws of nature. Analysis of these claims requires the use of information from the sciences. An examination of the history of this topic allows for a thorough look at the many ways in which people have been deliberately deceived by others or unintentionally by their own or other’s errors in perception and reasoning. It also allows for a discussion of serious, scientifically-conducted parapsychological research. This section also includes a discussion of hauntings and allows for a discussion of Newton’s laws as they pertain to claims made regarding ghosts.

 

Week 9: Number Sense: Probability, Risk Assessment, and the Lottery

This section entails a discussion of several issues related to the misuse of numbers. For example, statistics are often used by dishonest or untrained people to yield ‘results’ that appear to support dubious claims. People need to understand this when listening to advertisements and other claims. Also, daily news reports constantly warn us of risks to our life and health from innumerable threats such as assaults and kidnappings by criminals, radiation from cell phones, the medicines we take, and chemicals in the air, food and water. Many (though certainly not all) of these risks are of very low probability and are often based on limited data. Students will learn how to make sense of this information by understanding the limits to studies and the limits to the conclusions that can be drawn from limited data. Also, numerical information, in the form of highly ‘manipulated numbers’ is often used to support extraordinary claims. So, in this section of the course, students will learn how to think about numerical information from a more-informed perspective.

 

Week 10: Geology Meets Extraordinary Claims: Plate Tectonics, the Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis

During this week of class, several topics will be discussed, such as the Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis. In the process of discussing these topics, we introduce geological concepts related to the structure of the earth, the formation of the earth, plate tectonics, and radiometric dating.

 

Week 11: The Grand Canyon and Crystal Power: What Rocks and Minerals Can and Can't Tell Us

This section is a continuation of the discussion of geologic concepts begun the previous week and includes information pertaining to relative dating, radiometric dating, the formation of sedimentary rock, and principles of superposition. 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. Finally, there are innumerable claims regarding the power of crystals to enhance energy, cure diseases, and divine the future. Students will learn what minerals and crystals are, and whether the evidence supports these claims.

 

Grand Canyon

 

Week 12: Alternative Medicines and Diets: The Need for Control Groups, Placebos and Double Blind Studies

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.’

 

Week 13: Legendary Creatures Meet Biological Constraints: Food Chains, Energy and the Evidence

Everyone has heard of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, as well as many other extraordinary creatures. While these claims cannot be dismissed a priori, and some claims seem more tenable than others, there are several issues that must be considered when evaluating claims about these creatures – ranging from he accuracy of eyewitness testimony, to biological facts and principles regarding ecology, population size, food webs, etc. This topic also allows for the examination of alternative explanations ranging from outright fraud, to the misidentification of animals, and the misperception of natural phenomenon. In short, this section of the course emphasizes the need for ‘multiple working hypotheses’ and the fact that anecdotal evidence is not sufficient to establish the truth of a claim.

 

Big Foot Tracks

 

Weeks 14-15: Evolutionary Theory, Creationism and Intelligent Design: More on the Nature of Scientific Theories

This section introduces students to genetics, genetic change and the evidence for evolution. Information from geology and paleontology, observed instances of speciation (such as the cichlid fish in Lake Victoria), and 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.


Sam Houston State University | A Member of The Texas State University System