Course Blurb

science literacy-thumb-350x226-384357Science 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 universe. This 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.

By 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.

Course Objectives
With 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

  • Science is both imaginative and highly disciplined
  • Science is a very successful way to gain knowledge
  • Science 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 absolute proof is rare 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

2. The difference between good science, bad science, pseudoscience and everything else; evidence versus conviction; skeptics versus deniers


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

Skills developed

  • Ability 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

Teaching approach
Teaching 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.

Much of 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.

Last updated Aug 25, 2015

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