This course description has been confirmed as approved by the instructor for the fall 2008 offering only. Use this description for general information after that semester.

Course Description

GLS 531: Science and Pseudoscience

Instructor: Bob Brown

Dr. Robert T. Brown and friend

In the picture above, the head on the right is Dr. Brown.

So, what should we believe and why? Should we believe that the earth revolves around the sun, that the sun revolves around the earth, or that they take turns? Is one really true, or is it a matter of opinion? Are some beliefs sounder scientifically than others? How do we know? After all, many people in our society believe in, among other things:

  • astrology, even using astrological financial advisors;
  • visitation by extraterrestrial aliens and alien abduction;
  • the Bermuda triangle as an especially dangerous place;
  • fortune telling and other forms of prophecy, including Nostradamus;
  • extrasensory perception;
  • contact with the dead through spiritualists who have special powers;

The course deals with the following "chunks" of information, but not in this order:

  • Basics of science and scientific reasoning and their comparison with others ways of coming to belief;
  • Characteristics of pseudoscience and pseudoscientific beliefs;
  • Demarcatation between science and nonscience;
  • Description & evaluation of several areas which claim scientific support, but are questionable;
  • Methods for evaluating claims to knowledge, particularly those which may be pseudoscientific;
  • Comparisons among science, poor science, fraud, and pseudoscience;
  • The value of thinking statistically and critically;
  • How we receive and process information.
  • Why it's psychologically easy to believe what isn't true;

By the end of the course, you should be able to: describe basic characteristics of the scientific method; describe criteria by which we determine whether or not claims to knowledge are scientific; and use those descriptions and criteria to evaluate specific claims to knowledge. Of particular importance, you should have acquired some important "carryover" skills. Thus, for example, you should develop skills of evaluation that will enable you to become a "critical consumer" of information. In McPeck's terms, you should develop "reflective skepticism." By learning how people come to accept beliefs, you should become both more tolerant of others' beliefs and able to change your own.

Requirements: Midterm and final exams; Several short assignments; Project in which you select a potentially pseudoscientific area to evaluate (formal paper & 10-minute class presentation due near end of the semester). Finally, have some fun along the way!

Required materials (Available at Seahawk Bookstore in University Landing):

Brown, R. T. (Sp08). Science and pseudoscience. Wilmington, NC: UNCW Copy Center. (Contains extensive supplementary materials; reprinted readings, review questions, and hints on how to study.)

Hines, T. (2003). Pseudoscience and the paranormal, 2nd. ed. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Last Update: October 8, 2008

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