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
  • Ability to think probabilistically: risk, likelihood, error rates, degree of certainty

Last updated Aug 27, 2015

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