Science courses for non-science majors: Astrology & other Extraterrestrial matters

et astrology einstein“Albert WHO??!!

My goal in such courses is to inculcate a sense of science in general as a programmatic attempt to arrive at naturalistic explanations for objectively-observable phenomena. An important step is conveying the scientific method, and to which types of phenomena it is suited. At an early stage in the course students are prompted to develop the ability to distinguish between claims which are or are not in theory and practice ‘falsifiable (or capable of proof/disproof). Then via examples taken from astrology, telepathy and alternative medicine I inculcate an appreciation of the scientific method as a means of determining the truth of ‘falsifiable’ claims of any sort. By the time the course is over they do not see the scientific approach as limited to what is classically considered ‘scientific’ or ‘technological’ fields but rather as a method of determining the truth of certain types of assertions: those which are ‘consensually’ provable or disprovable by experiment.

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Course: Critical reading & studying:

  • how to spot internet scams; how to rate the reliability of a website’s information; intelligent internet searching.
  • how to read with understanding: utilizing popular science books, classroom practice in understanding what each paragraph says, how each ties into the one preceding and following, how a chapter coheres, and how the book progresses from chapter to chapter. What to glean from the title (eg ‘the blind watchmaker’), from the preface/introduction, from/back cover, reviews, the TOC and the text itself.

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Courses: “Astronomy and other extra-terrestrial matters”; “Astronomy, astrology and the scientific approach”

Introductory topic: “What is science”? guided classroom discussion

  • what does ‘naturalistic’ mean, what does it include/exclude? Find examples of phenomena which do and do not qualify as ‘objectively existing’.
  • Try to formulate political, philosophical, religious, cultural and ‘scientific’ beliefs as sets of assertions. Do the same for: astrology, conspiracy theories, alien abductions and ancient visitations etc.
  • Categorize assertions according to whether or not they are in theory capable of being consensually-proved or disproved by ‘experiment’.
  • How would you test such assertions? (By experiment of course!). What constitutes an experiment? (including the brain etc as an instrument.)
  • Can there be true statements which are not experimentally provable?
  • Is there ‘artistic truth’? political truth? etc which is separate from ‘scientific truth’? What is there that you deeply believe in, or believe to be true which is not provable/disprovable scientifically (in practice right now; in theory perhaps)?
  • Classroom discussion: construct examples of assertions which are and are not, and find examples of non-consensual ‘proofs’/experimental proof. What constitutes proof? (Sagan: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.)

 Body of the course: Science as a universally-applicable bias-free method (I used some of the below material in an astronomy course I taught): The scientific method and statistics using ‘counter-scientific’ examples, from controversial non-traditional medicinal practices to zombies. (First one can have a discussion with the students to find out what they believe in or have been exposed to via entertainment & social media etc.)

A: Conspiracy theories: analyzing the relative likelihood of the standard version of an event vs that proposed by the ‘conspiracy theory’; examples:

  • if the Holocaust is a hoax, what does this imply about the German government, given their declarations and laws prohibiting Holocaust denial, and then what would that necessitate, and how likely is that, and which scenario is more likely;
  • if aliens landed in the US 75 or so years ago, what would have been necessary in order to create a successful cover-up, and how likely is this compared to the standard scenario.

B: Applying science as a method, without prior bias (neither scientistic, new-age or religious etc), and understanding its range of applicability:

  • Astrology: utilizing science to determine parameters which an astrological system should incorporate; employing statistics to find the most accurate astrological predictions.[1]
  • Computing the likelihood of the existence of extra-terrestrial life (I used some of this material in an astronomy course I taught); looking at claims of alien encounters; ancient alien artifacts.
  • Methods to apply in investigating the efficacy of different ‘schools of medicine’, and the validity of paranormal effects.
  • Class project/participation: prayer; ‘codes’ etc; debate, and then switch sides, construct experiments, read literature.
  • Sagan’s books and articles in the skeptical inquirer.
  • Classroom discussion to analyze what one would have thought without the benefit of an appropriate statistical analysis; what one can/cannot learn from a statistical analysis.

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[1]For a book manuscript based on this course, but aimed at those who guide their lives via astrology, titled “Quantum Astrology and your future” subtitle: choosing the most effective astrological system and the best astrologer for you by utilizing science & statistics” : Part I presents the model of the universe as understood by science, including: human origin as ‘stardust’, so we are linked intimately to possibly other regions of the galaxy rather than just the neighborhood of Earth, and to times when the pattern of ‘stars’ about us was different; the structure of the universe (we see galaxies as dots so effective astrology should not think of them as individual stars); how we see this structure from Earth vs elsewhere (3-d shapes will be different when seen from different vantage-points or perspectives, so perhaps one should prefer a universal astrology valid for the structural-pattern as seen from other planets as well); the size of the universe (most of the physical universe is invisible to the naked eye and a truly valid astrology might include the entire universe rather than just what is visible to the eye); exotic elements such as black holes and wormholes and the way that space and time are warped, which affect the concept of causality in the universe and should be reflected in any cosmic model making long-term and cosmically relevant predictions; quantum physics introduces and element of randomness, and this – rather than pure ‘Fate’ – should be included in a modern astrology. Part II is basically a statistics primer presenting methods useful for gauging the accuracy of the types of predictions made by astrologists, and a review of studies made to determine their accuracy.

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