Student choices of topics: Area 51 and the JFK assassination (November 18-22)

The top student choices for our topics this week are Area 51 and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy Theories. Classics of our genre! I like these because I’ve done geological fieldwork near Area 51, and I actually remember the Kennedy Assassination (though I was just a little kid, mind you). We have divided these up into subtopics so we can do some research over the weekend. Be prepared to do your part of the Preparation Questions for 11:18 and 11:20.

Our Student Presentation Schedule is set. The first presentation is Friday, November 22. Our speakers are Amy, Jen, and Chris R. Here is the revised Presentation and Paper assignment.

Nonsense in the News —

Facebook recently began flagging some posts as “fake news”. Does it work at changing perceptions of viewers? Apparently not according to this study of media-savvy undergraduates. These students preferred to believe the news that fit their political preconceptions, regardless of the flags. Confirmation bias is hard to overcome.

The “Epstein didn’t kill himself” meme goes mainstream. Serious or trolling the Boomers?

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Pseudoscience and health (November 11-15)

This week we use our skeptical tool kits to examine the pseudoscience and nonsense afflicting our health and medical systems. First up will be that venerable field of homeopathy, a billions-of-dollars industry that literally sells potions with no active ingredients. “Like cures like” has been its basic principle since the 18th century, along with extraordinary dilutions. Other topics will include acupuncture (which we know some of you have had!) and various forms of energy medicine. Our main energy healing topic will be crystal healing (so-called). You may be shocked at where, how and by whom these crystals are mined.

Our Student Presentation Schedule is now set! First presentation is Friday, November 22. Here is the revised Presentation and Paper assignment.

Nonsense in the News —

Scientists back in the 19th century thoroughly debunked ghosts and other supernatural spooks, but the public much preferred to believe the nonsense. Much like today!

The College of Wooster has its own ghost stories, including a haunting of Freedlander Theater. (And apparently other campus places.)

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Advising and Research Projects (November 4-8)

This week is devoted to advising in preparation for next week’s epic course registration. Make sure you know where you are on our Advising Week schedule. Linked here is a useful Wooster video to give you a refresher on using the advising system online. Note there is a series of these Wooster colleague self-service videos.

During the rest of the week you should be working on the FYS short paper 4 Outline assignment.

The Example FYS Research Paper should be of growing interest to you. Here is the Research Paper assignment (due December 6 by 8:00 am).

Nonsense in the News —

Nothing you don’t sadly already know: The spread of pseudoscience on social media threatens us all.

Supreme nonsense: The Mandela Effect. If you haven’t heard of it before you’re in for a treat!

CNN has done a study of the bullying and harassment vaccination advocates receive on Facebook. Shameful.

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Holocaust Denial (continued) and GMO controversies (October 28 – November 1)

We intentionally kept this week unscheduled so we could catch up on any topics we need more time for. We also wanted to wait until we see the full range of research and conspiracy topics you chose to study. Watch this space for updates.

We will first return to Holocaust Denial, concentrating on the arguments and motivations of the deniers. For a brief review, you can watch again the short documentary The Development of the Final Solution. The BBC has an excellent historical perspective on Holocaust Denial. Here is a detailed approach to Holocaust Denial by RationalWiki.

Want a taste of raw, antisemitic Holocaust Denial? Try this Facebook page and this apparently Nazi website. Viewer be warned.

Our second topic this week will be the controversies and science of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The webpage of the Institute for Responsible Technology will give you a taste of the anti-GMO movement. This is the link for the Anjani Thomas brief presentation on GMO dangers. Friday’s video: Pamela Ronald on the value of GMO foods.

Here is the FYS short paper 4 Outline assignment. We now have your Advisng Week schedule.

Here is an Example FYS Research Paper. Here is the Research Paper assignment (due December 6 by 8:00 am).

Nonsense in the News —

Here is a CNN feature that seems strangely sympathetic to the nonsense of “ghost-hunting”. The writer appears to take the supposed supernatural phenomena seriously.

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Dangerous denials (October 21-25)

This is going to be a disturbing week. Our topic covers various “denial” movements and their arguments. Our most prominent subject will be Holocaust Denial and its advocates. To understand it, we must have basic knowledge about the Holocaust and then plunge into the arguments, as nonsensical as they are, against the Holocaust having even occurred. Our material will be rough at times, but such is historical analysis of atrocities. For further background, read and review the Holocaust Denial resources at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Rational Wiki has a thorough outline of Holocaust denier arguments. Want to see actual Holocaust deniers in action? Try this long screed by “Bible Believers“.

Here is FYS short paper 3 Conspiracies. It is due Wednesday, October 23, at 8:00 am via email.

Friday in class we will have a deep advising session. Bring your questions. Linked here is a useful Wooster video to give you a refresher on using the advising system online. Note there is a series of these Wooster colleague self-service videos.

Here is an Example FYS Research Paper. Here is the Research Paper assignment (due December 6 by 8:00 am).

Nonsense in the News —

Here’s a short BBC video on the origin of the Illuminati conspiracy theories. This is probably the most popular set of conspiracies because it involves celebrities at several levels.

You’ve got to visit the ultra-nonsensical world of mudfossils. In just a few minutes you’ll learn that rocks are actually all parts of human and “titan” flesh. DNA-tested! Anatomist approved! Perfect material for our class, especially considering how popular this delusion is. Rocks were alive!

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Fake news! (October 14-18)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the term “fake news” now has its own Wikipedia page. At first it meant hoaxed news items, but in the Age of Trump it has taken on the role of a pejorative to throw at news you don’t like. About a year ago the British government decided they were no longer going to use “fake news” because it is “a poorly-defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes”. This is exactly why it is such a great topic for us! Malik will be leading class on Monday as we dive into the murky waters of fake news.

Here’s a handy list of fake news websites in the United States. It’s a fun list to explore. UNESCO even has a rather dopey “tree” to show the roots of fake news:

Malik’s fake news video from Monday’s class. Here is his excellent Fake News Presentation. It is a model PowerPoint for your own presentations.

Here is FYS short paper 3 Conspiracies. It is due Wednesday, October 23, at 8:00 am via email.

Here is an Example FYS Research Paper. Here is the Research Paper assignment (due December 6 by 8:00 am).

Nonsense in the News —

We are watching conspiracy theories grow in real time. Read how one particular story about Ukraine has currency at the White House.

Fake Moon rock! This is an odd story since petrified wood is very far from looking like a basaltic Moon rock. We need more public geologists!

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Anti-evolution and Intelligent Design (September 30 – October 4)

The United States has a long tradition of anti-evolution activism, almost all of it based in fundamentalist Christianity. Welcome to my world. I’ve been teaching and studying evolution all my professional life and from Day One I’ve had to deal with creationists. After three decades it feels like some progress has been made for science, but it still is discouraging to see how many evolution deniers are out there.

Evolution is considered a lie or delusion by just over a third of Americans (which is, in fact, a new low point). “Young Earth Creationists” believe that the Earth and the Universe are a few thousand years old, and that evolution did not occur. This is radically different from the cosmological and evolutionary models supported by scientists. Creationist arguments sometimes appear scientific, but you will quickly see that they are based on misconceptions, misrepresentations, mysteries, and zealotry. For example, take a look at this page citing “evidence for a young Earth” from Answers in Genesis. These are the people who produced the multi-million-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky (“Prepare to Believe”). Check out this visit I had with First-Year Seminar students. (Don’t miss the comments by Answers in Genesis officers). These are the same people who spent millions building a full-scale version of the Ark. (Apparently visiting this Ark is a very boring experience.) While I am an evolutionary paleontologist and geologist, but please be assured that you will not be judged or graded on your personal beliefs. What you believe is always your business; what you understand about evolution and its critics is mine.

Here is an Example FYS Research Paper. Here is the Annotated Bibliography  assignment (due October 2 by 8:00 am). Here is the Research Paper assignment (due December 6 by 8:00 am)

Nonsense in the News —

It may not surprise you to learn that the Trump-Ukraine scandal has a far-right conspiracy theory in its roots.

Here’s an excellent account of a professor’s work with the rhetoric of conspiracy theories. There’s a First-Year Seminar involved!

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Time management and research guidelines (September 23-27)

This is a building week because I’m gone until Wednesday evening. I will be in Phoenix at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America giving this presentation. Here’s our schedule for the week —

MONDAY: Met in our regular room; Learning Center Assistant Director Kaylynne Mahone will talk about time management and other college life skills. This is required and Malik will be there in my place.

WEDNESDAY: No class meeting.

FRIDAY: We will meet first in our regular room and then walk to the Timken Library for research advice from Science Librarian Zach Sharrow. I will have returned!

Here is an Example FYS Research Paper. Here is the Annotated Bibliography  assignment (due October 2 by 8:00 am). Here is the Research Paper assignment (due December 6 by 8:00 am)

Nonsense in the News —

A Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist has been judged guilty of contempt of court. This is just a taste of what comes from this denialist community. (“Fetzer claims the massacre never happened but was instead an event staged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of an Obama administration effort to enact tighter gun restrictions.”)

Of course there are people who proclaim that Hurricane Dorian was produced by “weather weapons”.

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Psychics and ESP (September 16-20)

Our topic this week is a popular one: psychic phenomena. Let’s start with a review of the whole psychic thing with a Wikipedia summary. Note that the concept is very broad, from self-proclaimed prophets to spurious spoon-benders. When examining psychic claims, always look for legitimate experiments (not testimonials). The experiments must be blinded and repeatable by other examiners. So far no psychic has met this standard.

The psychic technique of cold reading has long fascinated me. A good psychic is an excellent social psychologist, with a command of human nature that is astonishing. read about the Barnum Effect for more information on how cold reading (and other practices) take advantage of our wishful thinking, vanity, and fears.

Check out this psychic’s predictions for 2019. How did she do? Check out this list of way-obvious 2019 predictions. (“I also feel an earthquake and I see it in an Asian country …”)

Amy introduced me to YouTuber Shane Dawson and his conspiracy videos. Here’s one of his most popular presentations. I can’t tell yet what his positions are, but he is entertaining and full of information (and misinformation). His 911 analysis has serious flaws.

[Items we used this week in class: Patricia Steere statement on IMDb. John Edward reading. Cold reading analysis.]

Nonsense in the News —

Tensions are appearing between QAnon believers and Trump re-election campaigners. It looks like the Trump people don’t want the craziness rubbing off on them. Ironically, they’ve been covertly encouraging Q fans since the start of the phenomenon.

A Florida psychic was just sentence to a prison term and fined $1.6 million for being a low-life scammer. Of course, it is all a scam, but this one was briefly quite successful in draining money from the naive.

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Conspiracy theories! (September 9-13)

We will start our week with the last half of the Behind the Curve documentary, finish our discussions of the framework for distinguishing science from pseudoscience, and then launch into conspiracy theories.

For a grim reminder of the social, civic and culture dangers of at least some conspiracy theories, please read this recent piece from the Washington Post. We may be in the Golden Age of conspiracy theories — check out this Wikipedia list. Both of these links may give you inspiration for your research paper topic. Time Magazine has a top ten list of enduring conspiracy theories. We will have so many topics to choose from, including late-breaking conspiracies involving Jeffrey Epstein. Even the recent tragic mass shootings have been quickly enveloped in conspiracy theories. Why people are so vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and who creates them, will be our primary focus.

Here is the Research Topic form due on September 11. Here is the Short Paper #2 assignment due on September 13.

Nonsense in the News —

Here’s a sweet combination of the cryptic Falun Gong movement, the Epoch Times, President Trump and end-times prophecies. Yes, QAnon is in there too! We live in very complicated times.

You’ve got to see this video explaining how QAnon spoiled a school fundraiser. We live in deeply odd times.

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