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A Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource

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

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