ECEN 3070 - Edges of Science

Spring 2018


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, understanding of the scientific method, and a 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.

       The best way to learn about scientific experimentation is to do it. A major objective is to learn about the scientific process through students forming groups to carry out a semester-long experiment.

       Conveying ideas and understanding effectively is particularly important for contentious subjects. An objective of this course is to help refine those skills through in-class discussion and debates, short advocacy papers, and a longer research paper.


Course Credit:

       Available as an elective for students in all disciplines across campus.

       Provides H&SS credit for Engineering students taking the course.



       D. Radin, Entangled Minds, Simon & Schuster, 2006

       Other books: readings provided

       Primary sources: multiple published articles



       MATH 1020, 1070, or 2510 or PSYC 3101 or SOCY 2061 or 4061 or equivalent (i.e., basic math). The reason for this prerequisite is to aid in understanding the statistical inference used in this class. If you have any concerns about not meeting this prerequisite, email the instructor.

       Minimum GPA of 3.3.


Class schedule:

       3 hours of seminar (discussion and presentation) per week. Independent laboratory work.



1.         The scientific method

a.         Format: Mixed lecture and classroom discussion

b.         Content: An examination of the scientific method, first in general and later in light of experimental data.

2.        Historical examples and critical methods

a.         Format: Dominantly discussion.

b.         Content: Tracing through development 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

a.         Format: Dominantly lecture

b.         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.

4.        Current experiments:

a.         Influences through space: telepathy.

b.         Influencing physical objects: psychokinesis in random event generator experiments.

c.         Influences through time: precognition.

5.        Implications and models:

a.         The experimenter effect.

b.         Energy conservation.

c.         Distance and time in classical and quantum physics.

d.         Assumptions of forward causality.

e.         Thermodynamics and entropy considerations.

f.         Information and Shannon entropy.

g.         Sample size and statistical power.

h.         "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." How much evidence is required to legitimize psi research?

6.        Student project presentations

a.         Format: Project papers passed out in advance. Advocates are the students who carried out the research and any others who choose to support them.


Class format:

Each class includes a discussion which usually takes up the majority of the class time. For the first half of the semester the class is divided into 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.



       Research project

o   High-quality research on a particular topic (Six previous class projects have been published)

o   Rigorous analysis of the data; comparison of results to those in the published literature

o   Final paper written in the style of a journal publication

       Assigned readings from the texts and journal articles. Additional reading by the students to support arguments to be presented in class an in reports.

       Advocacy reports

o   Tight argument in favor of or against a particular anomalous finding or theory

o   Based on assigned readings, material students find and students own ideas

o   Forms the basis for the advocates in-class arguments

       Human research training

o   All students must take the online training to be certified by the University to carry out research on humans


Catalog Description:

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.



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