Course outline

Week 1: Science’s Influence on Society

How has science altered human experience? For this week, the goal is
to consider the ways in which human existence and social organization
has been changed by science and technology. The place to start is with
agriculture and animal husbandry and the adoption of selective
breeding practices. These not only altered the population growth of
humans, but also established new patterns of division of labor and the
necessity of economic systems. In the current context, we will
consider the ways in which science and technology alters the “carrying
capacity” of the human population, and what this means going forward.
What happens if the current human population is deprived of science
and technology? What happens if science and technology does not
advance fast enough to meet today’s challenges?

Week 2: Science and War

Technology advances have often marked the difference between the
winning and losing sides of wars. Recent wars and political maneuvers
have seen competing technological approaches that were purposely begun
rather than simply appear, showing a difference in the scale and
expectations for such endeavors. We’ll consider the history of the
Balfour Declaration and how a chemist’s innovation in World War I has
helped shape the geopolitics of the Middle East ever since. The
explosive armament can be considered to have achieved its ultimate
form in nuclear fusion weapons, but technology for war has expanded on
other fronts. The rise of information technology has opened a new
frontier of cyberwarfare, marking the first known deployed
cyber-weapon in the Stuxnet worm.

Week 3: Science and Health

Medical technology advances most clearly manifest in the demographic
changes seen in developed countries as people have increased lifespans
and now die in substantially different ways than they used to. We will
take up issues in medicine and how society interacts with the science
behind the medical technology we increasingly take for granted. There
are problems looming, such as the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains
of bacteria and the effectiveness of the anti-vaccination movement.

Week 4: Science and Resources

We will come back this week to discussion of resources and the global
human population. Here we will look at the gloomy predictions of
Thomas Malthus and later advocates of Malthusian principles, and come
to an appreciation of how science and technology has allowed us to
artificially expand the human carrying capacity. Along with that comes
an appreciation that there can be threats to that expansion and the
consequences that can follow. Food, water, energy, and health
maintenance are all critical needs that my be threatened simply by
failure of technology to keep pace with population growth.

Week 5: Science and Denialism

Where economic and other motives suggest it, we see people take up
denial of scientific findings. The classic form of this can be seen in
the history of denial of a link between tobacco products and
cancer. Certain parts of society sought to manipulate public opinion
to prevent action to curtail tobacco use, and a major element of that
was a straightforward denial of the science showing the problem. We
will have a look at this case and apply what we saw there to other
forms of denial, of various levels of popularity. We’ll have a look
at the consequences of campaigns to deny scientific knowledge,
including reduction in public trust of scientists and diversion of
talent from embarking on STEM careers.

Week 6: Climate Change

Discussion here will focus on the science behind climate change and
the societal response. What is the “hockey stick” graph, and why has
it been villified by denialists? How can we be certain about anything
that has such noisy data? Is the IPCC really a conservative
organization? Why is climate change so contentious when not long
before the science behind linking CFCs to damage of the ozone layer
led to prompt global action to reduce CFCs going into the environment?

Week 7: Evolution

Another long-standing controversy concerns evolution and its
instruction in the public school science classrooms. We’ll explore the
history of this controversy and how the particular civic context of
the United States has changed how it is discussed. The legal principle
of the separation of church and state led contingently to the strategy
employed by antievolutionists here of simply declaring many of their
arguments as being “science”, and thus being worthy of instruction in
public school classrooms. This is another area of controversy
characterized by the pattern of denial we have already explored in
tobacco and climate change, though its antecedents predate both of
those.

Week 8: Building a Scientific Culture

This week, we will consider the direct role society now has in funding
and promulgating scientific research. There is a controversy over how
much involvement the government should have, if any, and long-standing
critiques from politicians concerning “waste” of taxpayer money in
“frivolous” research. We will consider the case of NASA and the
long-running opposition to its programs in light of the technological
benefits NASA’s operations have provided to the civilian
population. Can the private sector drive the research that is needed,
or must we have government sponsorship of science? What are the costs
and the benefits of promoting a scientific culture? Can we improve
public understanding of science? What are the consequences if we do
not take action to promote scientific knowledge and technological
innovation?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>