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Weird Science

This course was taught at the University of Oregon during the fall 2010 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

Science is a powerful tool to understand and explain the natural world in which we all live. Because of its apparent success in so many areas of our everyday lives, there are many instances in which individuals or groups claim that certain strongly or emotionally held beliefs are “scientific” or are supported by “scientific” studies. Even some scientists may make unwarranted claims of scientific “truth” (e.g., Scientism). How can the public, often without specialized scientific training, distinguish between scientific and pseudo-scientific claims?

This course will attempt to teach how to separate reasonable and unreasonable claims by learning how science tackles difficult problems. The key is to be skeptical, but not too skeptical. Students will examine a number of beliefs, including paranormal effects, alternative medicine, creationism and intelligent design, recovered memory syndrome, pseudoscientific devices (e.g., dousing, free energy machines, fuel efficiency extenders, etc.) that all profess to be scientific, and try to explain the psychology behind this clearly human need to believe.

Assignment Outline

The seminar will consist of several components designed to stimulate critical thinking through class discussion and essay writing with 10 writing assignments in the first half of the class. There will be assigned reading from several books and one or two videos to be viewed in class. There will be a midterm essay style exam with 10 questions covering the material from the first half of the class.

Subsequently the class will be arbitrarily divided into a number of pro and con groups to examine, present and discuss several specific pseudo-scientific topics in detail (to be determined by the instructor with suggestions from the class). These topics will be presented by the students as an 8–10 minute formal oral presentation in the second half of the class. A final 5–8 page paper based on the student presentations and subsequent discussions will complete the course

(161 kb PDF)

Evonomics: Evolutionary Economics

In this lecture Dr. Shermer considers the evolutionary origins of trade through the study of the economy as an evolving complex adaptive system grounded in a human nature that evolved functional adaptations to survival as a social primate species in the Paleolithic epoch in which we evolved. That is, the economy is a very complex system that changed and adapted to circumstances as it evolved out of a much simpler system, that we spent the first 90,000 years of our lives as hunter-gatherers living in small bands, and that this environment created a psychology not always well equipped to understand or live in the modern world.

(172 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

The Mind of the Market

In this lecture Shermer addresses three aspects of evolution and economics: (1) How the market has a mind of its own—that is, how economies evolved from hunter-gathering to consumer-trading. (2) How minds operate in markets—that is, how the human brain evolved to operate in a hunter-gatherer economy but must function in a consumer-trader economy. (3) How minds and markets are moral—that is, how moral emotions evolved to enable us to cooperate and how this capacity facilitates fair and free trade.

(58 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Why Darwin Matters

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Battle
for Science and Religion

Evolution happened, and the theory describing it is one of the most well-founded in all of science. Then why do half of all Americans reject it? There are religious and political reasons, and in Why Darwin Matters, historian of science and bestselling author Dr. Michael Shermer diffuses these fears by examining what evolution really is, how we know it happened, and how to test it. Dr. Shermer then discusses what science is through a brief history of the evolution-creation controversy—from the Scopes’ Monkey Trial of 1925 through the creationism trials of the 1960s and 1970s, to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of 1987, to the Intelligent Design controversies of the 1990s and 2000s—demonstrating clearly how and why creationism and Intelligent Design theory are not science. Dr. Shermer builds a powerful case for evolution as the theory that most closely parallels the Christian model of human nature and the conservative model of free market economics. Dr. Shermer was once an evangelical Christian and a creationist, and is now one of the best-known public intellectuals defending evolutionary theory, so Why Darwin Matters provides readers with an insiders’ guide to the evolution-creation debate, in which he shows why creationism and Intelligent Design are not only bad science, they are bad theology, and why science should be embraced by people of all beliefs.

(267 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Rise Above: How the World Works…or Should Work

In this lecture, Dr. Shermer integrates several strands of thought on the evolution of morality, ethics, the history of civilization, and how to be good without god by creating a society that accentuates the positive aspects of human nature while attenuating the negative aspects. He shows how and why both liberal democracy and free trade lead to better societies and that we can “rise above” our inner demons by bringing out the better angels of our nature.

(87 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

But Is It Crazy Enough?

This course was taught at Gettysburg College during the fall 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course will explore a number of controversial theories in a variety of different, and hopefully fun, ways. It will be somewhat different than most science courses students may have taken up until this point: it will be far more interactive and experimental. Students won’t have any tests; they will have papers, oral presentations, posters, speeches and other activities instead, and run large portions of the course themselves. Students will also have to be a bit more creative than they may be used to in class. They may even find themselves singing through part of it!

By the end of the course, students should have an appreciation for how science is used to sort truth from fiction and what it takes to settle a debate in science. They will also better understand the reason why correct theories may be rejected for decades before being accepted, while others have been proved as false as possible within the realm of science.

Learning goals
  1. Understand the scientific process and how theories are developed and tested over time.
  2. Understand how scientific discoveries can affect culture and society, and how society can react to the presentation of controversial scientific ideas.
  3. Understand how ideas are presented within academia, how peer review works and how to effectively use speeches, written papers, academic posters, Powerpoint and other visual aids to present an argument.
  4. Understand research tools, databases and other academic resources.
  5. Be better able to uncover deception in an argument ranging from shading the truth to outright fabrication.
  6. Understand how a scientific theory can be used politically to justify multiple points of view.
  7. Be better able to evaluate popular magazine, newspaper and internet articles discussing controversial ideas.

(130 kb PDF)

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