tl;dr Write a case study on a situation where the process of science has run off the rails.
Case Study: Flawed Process of Science
The scientific approach has resulted in an explosion of technology and knowledge about our world. However, when applied without attention to integrity – to ensuring rigor, thoroughness, and accuracy – even honest, well-meaning scientists can reach incorrect conclusions. Worse, the intentional misapplication of the scientific method, or the use of the trappings of scientific study to lend credence to a spurious idea (“pseudoscience”), is a powerful tool of deception, in which bad actors claim that deliberate misinformation resulted from an unbiased scientific process.
In this paper, you will explore what happens when the process of scientific thought is either negligently or maliciously derailed.
Choose a contemporary (roughly, since 1875) phenomenon in which this happened. (It doesn’t have to be specifically about physics or astronomy; your example may come from any field that purports to use the scientific process, including the social sciences.) Your example needs to have at least the following properties:
• Someone made a claim purporting to be the result of scientific study
• This claim was false or not well-founded
• The incorrect claim resulted in some way from some failing in the process of science.
◦ This might be because of an honest mistake
◦ It might be because someone really should have been more careful
◦ It might also be a result of deliberate deception or malice
As a reminder, common fallacies that you will find include:
• Sampling bias: using a limited and biased data set that isn’t representative of the broader population
• Overgeneralization: drawing broad conclusions from limited evidence (i.e. generalizing from a psychological study of American college students to all people)
• Argument ad hominem: rejecting legitimate scientific findings based on who the scientists are, rather than considering the data itself
• Ignoring refuting evidence: failing to consider or deliberately ignoring evidence that calls into question the claim being made
• Manufacturing a controversy: attempting to erode public confidence in legitimate scientific conclusions by creating the appearance of a controversy when no real controversy exists
• Sensationalism: conflating a demonstration that something is exciting with evidence that is true
contemporary (roughly, since 1875) phenomenon NB: The chosen contemporary phenomenon is Food Combining Diet.
So, what do I want you to do?
Write a short essay of 750-1500 words (2-3 pages single spaced; 3-6 pages double spaced) that discusses what happened, and describes in what way the principles of scientific integrity or rigor were compromised.
Your paper should also describe what “warning signs” someone else might observe that would hint that something is wrong. What questions should a skeptical audience (whether fellow scientists or the general public) have asked that could point out the flaws in the argument being made? This is especially important if you are discussing an example of deliberate misinformation: how could someone else have recognized that they were being lied to?
Finally, if the issue resulted from negligence or a mistake, rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive anyone, describe what the researchers should have done instead to ensure that they didn’t reach incorrect conclusions.
A few notes:
• This topic may lead you into political territory. It is perfectly okay to have clear views. For instance, if you believe that one side of an issue has more merit than the other, you do not need to spend “equal time” articulating the position of the “other side” that you believe is faulty. (We will of course evaluate your work based on whether you state your positions well and thoughtfully, not whether the person grading your paper agrees with you!) However, your paper should focus on the process of science and how it has gone astray; it shouldn’t simply be an advocacy paper for a particular policy position.
• You may write about a single experiment/claim, or a series of linked claims that form a coherent movement.
What do we expect regarding citation of sources and academic integrity?
• We expect you to write an articulate essay consisting of both your own thoughts and (possibly) research that you do at the library or on the internet.
• We expect you to show clearly which text is original to you, which reflects ideas which you found elsewhere but have digested and expressed in your own words, and which text is a direct quote from someone else’s words. In short, you need to cite your sources, in any clear format you are familiar with. You do not need lots of sources, but any references you use you should tell me about. This should include at a minimum URL’s and page titles for online sources, and book titles, authors, and publication years for books. Note that extensive use of direct quotes is discouraged. A direct quote should only be used when the original author said it better than you possibly could, and if that is often the case, then this makes us question your writing skill!
• We expect you to critically consider the validity and reliability of your sources. Just becuse something shows up in a Google search does not mean that the author is well-informed. (Of course, you will likely be citing incorrect things in order to talk about them!)
• We expect you to write your paper yourself. Remember my standard for academic integrity: “academic dishonesty consists of substituting someone else’s understanding for your own.” Talk to other people (and cite them). Look stuff up online! Talk to your friends and get them to read your paper for you! But, ultimately, you must understand everything you write, and have composed the words yourself.
How will this be graded?
The grading will be done by a combination of your recitation TA’s and professors.
If you write an exemplary essay here, especially one that teaches us something we didn’t know, you may earn extra credit.
Longer papers will get no higher of a grade unless they use their extra words to actually say something interesting. There are almost five hundred of you and grading is going to take a while, so if you only have a few things to say, say them well and succinctly, and be proud.
We will grade you based on:
• insight into the process of science and factual correctness
• clarity of writing. Note that we will not nitpick spelling or minor grammar issues, and will be particularly lenient to students who have not lived for long in an English-speaking country. I’m more interested in whether your ideas fit together to tell a coherent story.
• creativity, in particular in relating your issue to other issues or trends in human thought
• We are not looking for perfection; we are looking for insight. I am aware that many of you speak English as a second language. Don’t worry about your English skills; I want to know what you think.