Fall 2009

Bad Science


Nicholas C. Darnton (Section 01)


What is "bad science"?  How do you recognize it and why does it occur? For instance, why is philosophy no longer considered science?  Is "experimental ethics" an oxymoron?  Can we trust current science when so much past science has proved wrong? This course examines incorrect, immoral, corrupt and just plain kooky ideas in the physical sciences.  It will touch on history, philosophy, ethics, and politics as they pertain to the scientific endeavor.  We start from the gold standard of scientific process, the scientific method, and its relationship to the scientific product, knowledge or truth.  We consider why, how, and sometimes if obsolete theories are dethroned.  We will attempt to classify disciplines ranging from the straightforward to the murky, from physics to alchemy to xenobiology.  We will examine science that crosses into popular culture, producing common knowledge that may contradict expert opinion. The course will focus around specific examples from many sources of bad science.  Bad science can arise from fraud, from honest errors, or from conscious or unconscious biases.  Science can be co-opted to serve political or religious ends, which may or may not undermine it.  Some science is considered "bad" because it has been used or acquired unethically.  Pseudoscience adopts the trappings of science to conceal an unscientific agenda. This course is conceived as an introduction to liberal arts studies from the perspective of a working scientist.   Through discussion and frequent writing, you will learn to place examples of "bad science" in their larger context and, ultimately, you will decide what credence you wish to attach to scientific truth.  As we address these issues, we will find many questions to be unanswerable--yet science marches on.

Though general scientific and numeric literacy will be necessary for this course, it is organized around reading and writing rather than around problem sets and calculations.  We will have weekly readings drawn from eclectic sources, followed by collective discussion.  Since many of this course's questions are ambiguous or contradictory, we will engage in robust, though polite, debate over interpretation.   You will write near-weekly short essays (3-4 pages), a longer mid-semester paper (10 pages), and a final paper (12-15 pages).  The course's topics lend themselves to opinion and speculation, so these essays will not be scientific writing per se, but we will emphasize the precise, spare style that characterizes scientific prose.  

Fall semester.  Professor Darnton.


2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009