Course Notes

“Responsible believing is a skill that can be maintained only through constant practice. Since responsible believing is a prerequisite for responsible acting, we have a duty to foster that skill.” (W.K. Clifford)

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” (Dr. Seuss)

A deep streak of irrationality runs through humanity.  Best-selling authors describe complicated plots behind such diverse phenomena as UFOs, earthquakes, the 9/11 attacks, and vaccinations.  History is often “revised” to fit particular political positions, psychics communicate with the dead, creationists battle the science of evolution, astrologers see our destinies in the stars, and modern prophets warn us of the Last Days.  Billions of dollars have been spent on worthless or even harmful medical treatments.  Every year someone “discovers” Atlantis while someone else “proves” that there were ancient civilizations on Mars.  Why is such nonsense so popular?  What are the dangers to society when irrationality is common?  Do we have logical tools to sort bad ideas from good?  In this seminar we will examine conspiracy theories, crank science, quack medicine, and revisionist history.  We will use original literature, websites, and films to explore the lure of these ideas and their social origins.  One of our primary books will be Schick and Vaughn’s How to Think About Weird Things. Ultimately our course objective will be to improve our own critical thinking, writing and speaking … and to, in the words of the late Carl Sagan, light a candle in a demon-haunted world.

Syllabus.–The outline of our weekly course subjects is on our syllabus page. Note the due dates, special events and reading schedule. Since this is a “living syllabus” we can change up the order of events if we wish to as a class.

Attendance.–We will meet at 8:00 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for lectures in Scovel 116. Attendance is required. You are expected to be in the classroom just before 8:00 a.m. so we can start on time.  (I know, I know, but 8 a.m. classes build character! And I can guarantee that our schedule will not conflict with most other courses.)

Readings.–Each set of readings is to be completed before the week for which it is assigned. On most class days I will give you a set of questions or provocative points from the reading to stimulate discussion (our preparation questions). Missing the reading in this class becomes painfully obvious in the discussions and on the assignments. Besides, no one has reading more fun than we do! Note that this website (and the links I send you to) is also part of your required reading. I will update the front page every week with discussion and links for our next week’s materials.

Grading.–Here is the summary of the assignments and how much they count towards your final grade:

Short papers (4): 10% each; due dates will be on the assignments.
Annotated bibliography for research paper: 5%; due on October 30.
Research paper: 25%; due on December 11. Here is the Research Paper Assessment sheet.
Oral presentation: 15%; presenting your research project, starting on November 30.
Class participation: 15%; includes work on preparation question answers and miscellaneous short written assignments.

Now the details:

Short papers: There will be four short (2-5 pages) paper assignments. They will usually be analyses of news items, readings, websites, or particular issues which appear in class discussions. They will often be due a week or so after assignment.

Research bibliography, paper and presentation: Early in the semester you will choose some aspect of pseudoscience, conspiratorial history, medical quackery or the like to be your specialty in the class. The first thing you will do is collect resources on the topic (naturally) and then give me an annotated bibliography so I know you are on track. At the end of the course you will present your findings to the class and turn in a paper 15-20 pages long or so. We will talk about this Research Paper assignment every week, include subject choice, paper format, and oral presentation styles. Here is the Research Paper Assessment sheet. For an idea of the scope of the research paper in this course, check out this Sample FYS Research Paper (pdf).

Class participation: I will expect you to be in class every day ready to share your observations and take part in conversations about the material. Everyone has an “A” in this part of the course until you show me otherwise.

Preparation questions.–Check these before each class and be ready to discuss them. I will occasionally ask you to read your responses, and sometimes I will collect them as part of your participation grade. You thus want to always have them written before class begins.

Academic integrity.–The following is a College policy statement: The academic program at the College seeks to promote the intellectual development of each  student and the realization of that individual’s potential for creative thinking, learning, and understanding.  In achieving this, each student must learn to use his/her mind rigorously, independently, and imaginatively.

The College’s understanding and expectations in regard to issues of academic honesty are fully articulated in the Code of Academic Integrity as published in The Scot’s Key and form an essential part of the implicit contract between the student and the College.  The Code provides a framework at Wooster to help students develop and exhibit honesty in their academic work.  You are expected to know and abide by the rules of the institution as described in The Scot’s Key and the Handbook of Selected College Policies.

Dishonesty in any of your academic work is a serious breach of the Code of Academic Integrity and is grounds for an “F” for the entire course.  Such violations include turning in another person’s work as your own, copying from any source without proper citation, crossing the boundary of what is allowed in a group project, submitting an assignment produced for a course to a second course without the authorization of all the instructors, and lying in connection with your academic work.  You will be held responsible for your actions.  Particular attention should be directed to the appropriate use of materials available through the Internet.  Whether intentional or not, improper use of materials is a violation of academic honesty.  If you are unsure as to what is permissible, please contact your course instructor.

Schedule conflicts.–The faculty of the College has approved a policy regarding conflicts between extracurricular and academic events: The College of Wooster is an academic institution and its fundamental purpose is to stimulate its students to reach the highest standard of intellectual achievement. As an academic institution with this purpose, the College expects students to give the highest priority to their academic responsibilities. When conflicts arise between academic commitments and complementary programs (including athletic, cultural, educational, and volunteer activities), students, faculty, staff, and administrators all share the responsibility of minimizing and resolving them. As a student you have the responsibility to inform the faculty member of potential conflicts as soon as you are aware of them, and to discuss and work with the faculty member to identify alternative ways to fulfill your academic commitments without sacrificing the academic integrity and rigor of the course.


415Uc9LN+tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Barkun, M. 2013. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. University of California Press; 2nd edition; 320 pages; ISBN: 978-0520276826

51f6b9dBWCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Schick, T. & Vaughn, L. 2014. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. McGraw-Hill; 7th edition; 352 pages; ISBN: 978-0078038365

Course instructor.–I have an appointment schedule posted outside my office door (Scovel 120). Please sign up for an appointment if you have any questions or just want to talk. You may also send me email at Please visit me if there is anything at all you wish to discuss.

Mark A. Wilson
Department of Geology
The College of Wooster

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