The Scientific Method:
Critical and Creative Thinking

Instructors:
Professor Randall J. Scalise
Professor John Cotton
Southern Methodist University

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TABLE OF CONTENTS


COURSE DESCRIPTION

This course will introduce you to pseudo-science, outlandish claims, hype and outright BS. You will learn ways of thinking critically and questioning things; this will equip you to better deal with the enormous amount of such stuff that exists in the modern world. Expect to do a lot of reading, writing and, most of all, thinking.


COURSE WORK

  • Weekly reading, discussion, homework, pop quizzes, in-class writing assignments
  • Two 3-page book reviews from the Auxiliary Reading list below (feel free to suggest other titles subject to instructor approval)
  • One 7-page research paper
  • One 15-page research paper
  • Honors students to present papers orally
  • Written final examination

SYLLABUS
*Note:
To view detailed lecture notes and class handouts, click here.

Lecture #1 Introduction
Lecture #2 The Scientific Method
Lecture #3 Aristotle and Galileo
Lecture #4 Theory, Paradigm, Occam
Lecture #5 Intro to Probability
Lecture #6 Apparent paradoxes
Lecture #7 Threshold Phenomena
Lecture #8 More Threshold Phenomena - N-Rays
Lecture #9 Cold Fusion (more self-delusion)
Lecture #10 Hoaxes
Lecture #11 More Hoaxes (crop circles)
Lecture #12 Yet more hoaxes - UFOs
Lecture #13 More strange things - Area 51
Lecture #14 Experimental measurement and error
Lecture #15 Experimental precision
Lecture #16 The Patent Office
Lecture #17 The Flat Earth
Lecture #18 The Bermuda Triangle
Lecture #19 Pseudoscience Overview
Lecture #20 Astrology Intro.
Lecture #21 Astrology continued (Title, abstract,outline of 7-page paper due)
Lecture #22 Intro. to ESP, etc
Lecture #23 More ESP; video segments
Lecture #24 Still more ESP; video segment
Lecture #25 Even more on psychics, etc. 7 page paper due
Lecture #26 Communicating with the dead?
Lecture #27 Animal Psychics
Lecture #28 Faith Healers; HW4 due
Lecture #29 Homeopathy, Acupuncture
Lecture #30 Ulcers (real science); Experiment design
Lecture #31 Brain Detectors, More mediums
Lecture #32 Noah's Flood; Book report #1 due
Lecture #33 Guest lecture: Dr. Ron Wetherington
Lecture #34 Guest lecture: Dr. Lou Jacobs
Lecture #35 How to Lie With Statistics; Title,abstract,outline of 15-page paper due
Lecture #36 More Fishy Statistics
Lecture #37 The Scientific Method - One More Time
Lecture #38 Scientific Method continued; Book report #2 due
Lecture #39 More on scams ; Evolution; Rewrite of 7-page paper due
Lecture #40 The Star of Bethlehem
Lecture #42 15 page paper due; 15 page paper presentations.

*Note: To view detailed lecture notes and class handouts, click here.


REQUIRED COURSE TEXTS

  • Lecture #1: Chapters 1 and 2 of Shermer
  • Lecture #5: Chapters 3 and 4 of Shermer
  • Lecture #9: Begin reading Schick & Vaughn
  • Lecture #12: Complete Chapter 4 of Schick & Vaughn
  • Lecture #22: Finish Schick & Vaughn
  • Lecture #23: Begin reading Sagan
  • Lecture #24: Finish Chapters 1 and 2 of Sagan
  • Lecture #27: Complete Chapters 3 and 4 of Sagan
  • Lecture #28: Complete Chapters 5 and 6 of Sagan
  • Lecture #32: Complete Chapters 7 and 8 of Sagan
  • Lecture #35: Complete Chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Sagan

SUGGESTED AUXILIARY READING

Good Science

The following are fiction but are quite prophetic:

Bad Science


PERIODICALS & JOURNAL ARTICLES


HANDOUTS


HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS

Assignment #1: (due for Lecture #6)

Write a 200-word description or critique of one of the web sites listed on the 3333 home page, or one of your own choosing if it is relevant to the course. Include the URL of the site. Spelling counts. Grammar counts. Logical connection of ideas count.

Assignment #2: (due for Lecture #14)

Collect 20 names on a sheet of paper swearing or affirming that an obviously false statement is true. For example, the paper may begin, "We, the undersigned, swear or affirm that Professor Scalise is a visitor from the planet Fringus in the distant galaxy Fstmff. Furthermore, he can read minds, and he has seven fingers on each of his three hands." Make up your own wildly false statement. The more outrageous, the better. The people signing your document can NOT be students in this class.

Assignment #3: (due for Lecture #20)

Based on the video "In Search of the Edge"

  1. Research the four flat-earthers. Are they real people? Find out all you can about them. Cite your sources. Don't give us your uninformed opinion!
    • polar explorer Andrea Barns.
    • retired schoolteacher George Tinkess - what school? where? what subject?
    • university professor Leo Ferrari - which university? what subject?
    • scientist George Vanderkuur - what background? any degrees?
  2. Come up with your own proofs that the Earth is round. They should be simple enough for a child to understand and still be convincing. The proofs can be based on common experience, or they can entail a simple, inexpensive experiment which you must describe in sufficient detail actually to be carried out.
  3. The university professor, Leo Ferrari, claims that one cannot feel the Earth moving although the equatorial speed is 1000 miles/hour. He then says that a merry-go-round travelling at 10 miles/hour make one dizzy.
    • Calculate the centripetal acceleration for the spinning Earth in m/s2 and in "g"s (Earth gravities).
    • Calculate the centripetal acceleration for the merry-go-round in m/s2 and in "g"s.
    • How much larger is the merry-go-round effect?
    • Even if Earth rotated faster, you would not get dizzy, but on the merry-go-round you do. What is the reason for this?
  4. Scientist George Vanderkuur claims that buildings are wider at the top than at the bottom because they are built using plumb bobs which point toward the center of the supposedly round Earth.
    • Research the dimensions of the Sears Tower.
    • In theory, how much wider is the top than the bottom, in millimeters?
    • What percentage of the building width is this?
    • To what tolerances are real skyscrapers constructed? Cite your source of information.
  5. How far is a horizontal light beam bent vertically after traveling 10 miles in the Earth's gravitational field?
  6. If you were in the middle of the very calm Pacific Ocean perched atop the 16-foot tall mast of a ship, how distant is your horizon

Assignment #4: (due for Lecture #28)

Design an experiment that, if successful, would convince the grossest skeptic that mental telepathy is a real phenomenon. Describe how to perform and evaluate the experiment. Be sure to specify the controls that will prevent deception and trickery. Describe how the experiment is to be "blinded" to remove bias on the part of the experimenters. Specify what constitutes success and failure. Describe ways to block off ad hoc excuses. All data must be considered; none can be dropped.

Using what you have learned so far, lay out the experiment step by step. Describe things clearly.

Assignment #5: (due for Lecture #34)

Now that we have delved more into experiments, try this one. Design an experiment that, if successful, would convince the grossest skeptic that a medium can communicate with the dead. Describe how to perform and evaluate the experiment. Be sure to specify the controls that will prevent deception and trickery. Describe how the experiment is to be "blinded" to remove bias on the part of the experimenters. Specify what constitutes success and failure. Describe ways to block off ad hoc excuses. All data must be considered; none can be dropped.

Using what you have learned so far, lay out the experiment step by step. Describe things clearly. Make sure the experiment is feasible and does not take years to carry out.


SUGGESTIONS FOR RESEARCH PAPERS

Some Ideas for Topics:

  • The Scientific Method, Aristotle vs. Galileo
  • Logic, Induction and Deduction, Occam's Razor
  • Facts, Laws, and Theories; Paradigm Shifts
  • People Fooling Themselves: Threshold Phenomena; N-rays; Cold Fusion; Element 118
  • Evolution and Creationism, Intelligent Design
  • Pseudoscience: Dowsing; Cold Reading: Fortune Telling; Astrology; Tarot Cards; Palmistry
  • Statistics and Coincidence: Pyramidology; Hidden codes; the Cabala
  • What is Evidence? the Double-blind Test, Confirmation Bias
  • UFO's, Flying Saucers, Alien Abductions, Area 51, Extraterrestrial Life, SETI
  • Paranormal Phenomena: ESP; Psychics; Telekinesis; Remote Viewing; Spoon Bending; Transcendental Meditation; Ghosts; the Supernatural; Guardian Angels
  • Alternative Medicine: the Placebo Effect; Magnetotherapy; Biofields; Homeopathy; Chiropractic; Acupuncture; Reflexology; Faith Healing
  • Hoaxes: Crop Circles; Piltdown Man; the Cardiff Giant; Vitamin O; the Loch Ness Monster; Bigfoot; Schoen at Bell Labs; Psychic Surgery; the Cottingley Fairies
  • Violation of Physics Law: Perpetual Motion Machines - Type 1 and Type 2; Free-Energy Devices; Over Unity Devices
  • Soviet Biology, Lysenkoism
  • Outright fraud: Fake faith healers
  • The Crackpot Index, the Flat Earth Society
  • Did we really land on the Moon? Conspiracy theories
  • Einstein's Special Relativity - a target for crackpots
  • A View Ahead

Some Topics to Avoid

There are some topics which, although interesting in themselves, should be avoided in 3333. They can and will get you into trouble. Here are some of them.

  • Anything based on fiction (vampires, Frankenstein, etc.)
  • Pure mythology (Atlantis, etc.)
  • Anything based on pure religion (angels, resurrection, existence of God, etc.)

You can't apply scientific method to these things. Papers on fictional subjects can degenerate into a survey of mythology descended from the original work. If there is a factual underpinning for the story, the paper can wind up as a historical summary. Mythology concerns something that never existed, so it's going to be hard to apply science to it, given total lack of evidence. Finally, as we have said, religion and science are to be kept separate here.


USEFUL WEB SITES

Good Science

Bad Science


AUDIO & VIDEO TAPES OF INTEREST

  • The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke
  • The Mechanical Universe by David Goodstein
  • Secrets of the Psychics by James Randi
  • Vanished A PBS NOVA program.
  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  • In Search of the Edge A film by Scott Barrie, Produced by Pancake Productions,
    ISBN: 1-56029-048-X
  • Signs
  • Nova: The Crop Circle Makers: Doug and Dave
  • The Glenn Mitchell Show - Interview with John Rennie, author of "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" Scientific American article