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ECEN 3070 - Edges of Science

Catalog Data ECEN 3070 (3). Edges of Science. Examines the evidence for paranormal phenomena, reasons for skepticism, and physical models that could account for the data. Reviews controversial scientific theories that overcame barriers to acceptance and how world views shift. Considers the scientific method and ways uncontrolled factors might influence experiments. Develops skill in statistical analysis of data. Includes group projects testing for anomalous and parapsychological effects. Not accepted as a technical elective for engineering majors.
Approved for the Core Curriculum Critical Thinking requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences. May be used only as free elective credit for EEEN or ECEN majors.
Credits and Design 3 credit hours: 3 hours of seminar (discussion and presentation) per week, independent laboratory work. Elective course.
Prerequisite(s) Math 1011, or equivalent.
Textbook Dean Radin, Entangled Minds, Pocket Books, 2006.
Chris Carter, Parapsychology and the Skeptics, SterlingHouse Books, 2007.
Course Objectives
  • In textbooks, science and engineering are usually presented as universally accepted, stagnant bodies of knowledge, but in fact they are in constant turmoil such that today's fiction becomes tomorrow's fact and vice versa. Many claims are made about scientific findings and theories, on one extreme that they represent the ultimate truth, and on the other that they are unscientific or fraudulent. One course objective is to develop a mental tool set and careful approach for analyzing scientific claims, to distinguish fuzzy thinking and an irrational response to new scientific concepts from a healthy skepticism.
  • The second objective is to learn about current research in psychic phenomena and the underlying science in sufficient depth to be able to follow and possibly even participate in its progress. A wide array of these phenomena cannot stand up to critical scrutiny, while a subset have exhibited a stubborn positive statistical effect in hundreds of published scientific studies. These will be analyzed using the texts, scientific publications, and direct experimentation.
Topics Covered
  1. The scientific method
      Format: Mixed lecture and classroom discussion
      Content: An examination of the scientific method, first in general and later in light of experimental data.
  2. Historical examples and critical methods
      Format: Dominantly discussion.
      Content: Tracing through deveopment of several scientific theories to the point where they become generally accepted or rejected, using several historical examples.
  3. Basic experimental methods, hypothesis testing, and statistical analysis
      Format: Dominantly lecture
      Content: Analyzing one experiment or model, or related group of experiments or models, during each class meeting. Many assertions of anomalies are anecdotal and are not susceptible to rigorous inquiry. We work to distinguish appropriately documented research from unsupported assertions. We show how a healthy skepticism can see through unsupported assertions, and how pathological skepticism can work against honest scientific inquiry.
      1. Current experiments:
        • Influences through space: telepathy.
        • Influencing physical objects: Psychokinesis in random event generator experiments.
        • Influences through time: precognition.
      2. Implications and models:
        • The experimenter effect.
        • Energy conservation.
        • Distance and time in classical and quantum physics.
        • Assumptions of forward causality.
        • Thermodynamics and entropy considerations.
        • Information and Shannon entropy.
        • Sample size and statistical power.
        • "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." How much evidence is required to legitimize psi research?
  4. Student project presentations.
Class format: Each class includes a discussion which usually takes up the majority of the class time. The class is divided into the three groups (make-up of groups varies over semester):
  1. Advocates
  2. Skeptics/traditionalists
  3. Questioners/judges
For each topic, advocates and skeptics provide a short opening statement. The questioners query both the advocates and the skeptics. The goal is not to "win" the "debate," but rather to examine the subject in as much depth as possible. Therefore, after the initial round of discussion, advocates and skeptics may change their positions following what they believe or becoming devil's advocates. For topics requiring a particular background, a lecture format is used for part of the class period.

Last revised: 08-02-11, PM, ARP.