Course Description

[M]ost people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.
- Bertrand Russell

Welcome to CPSP119D, section 102*, "Science and Pseudoscience." You will have the chance in this class to develop the skills necessary to avoid becoming "most people"; to prove that you are willing to tackle difficult questions and not always jump for the easy answer.

This colloquium is focused on developing critical thinking skills by debunking (or not!) claims by pseudoscientists, and thereby developing an understanding of what science is and what it can and cannot do. We will also explore the shifting boundaries between (and definitions of) faith, belief, comprehension and the limits of science. We will investigate how logical fallacies play a large role in shaping public opinion of science, pseudoscience and faith. Ultimately, it will be up to the student whether science implicitly has any limits and what he or she wishes to believe in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of counter-evidence.

Some of the pseudoscience topics in this course may seem frivolous. We will treat them as straw men to develop the language of informed criticism. By the end of the semester, the student should be able to answer these questions confidently and knowledgeably:

The incomparable geekfest xkcd
gets it right.

In a one-credit, one semester course we can only hope to scrape the surface of the complicated terrain around the philosophy of science, the psychology (and biology!) of belief, the rather surprising limitations of human reasoning, and the very real current dangers confronting humanity because of willful ignorance. We will not have time to delve as deeply as I (and possibly you) would like, and the interested student is encouraged to continue this pursuit outside class. [Side note: SDU alumni have begun an on-campus organization, the UMD Society for Inquiry which may interest you!]

Discussing the differences (and similarities?) amongst science, pseudoscience and religion may be a delicate topic for some, and students are urged to consider the Classroom Rules of behavior when engaged in conversation. Theoretically, at least, there is no cause for offense; practically, some students have been upset or unwilling to continue discussion (including, or especially, atheist students!). There will be people uncomfortable with the kinds of questions that will arise, either because they've never confronted them before, or because they feel unready to deal with them in a public setting. Please speak with me early in the semester (privately during office hours if you prefer) if you want to abstain from these discussions (see the Lecture Schedule).

Back to Top


This is a one-credit course, and there are no exams. Your grade is based on (1) your participation in class, (2) homework assignments, (3) a group project and (4) specific activities outside the classroom. Academic rigor is a hallmark of Scholars, but you will quickly learn that it is not always necessary or relevant to show it through tests. Some questions won't have "correct" answers and the intellectual rigor of wrestling with those will serve you well in all your classes.

Once again, xkcd nails it.

Point System

It is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that I will have to curve this class and I expect that most of you will do just fine. However, you can "fail" this class (remember that your SDU classes GPA must be 3.0!) if you rarely show up and blow off the assignments; just blowing off the assignments will drop your grade to a C or worse. You will also do poorly if you show up but consistently violate the Classroom Rules spelled out below.

Letter GradeABCDF
Course Total900+800-899700-799600-699<600

Assignments will generally be on the ELMS website where you will also be able to see your grade as the semester progresses.

Back to Top

Course Expectations

  1. Participation (30%): In order to contribute to, and get something out of, this course, I expect you to try to attend all of our colloquia. (In particular, DO NOT MISS the last two colloquia where you all will be presenting group projects or your project grade will definitely drop.) If you cannot attend due to illness, please contact me before 4 pm of the colloquium day or you will not get credit! There is rarely an excuse for not being able to at least call me and leave a message. For the record, the official University policy on how to deal with absences is here.

    Even if you do not volunteer information readily, you will almost certainly be called on in class at some point to give your opinion or to posit an argument. Later in the term, there will be staged debates! Consider this to be practice for your required participation in the end-of-term group project where you will be expected to contribute your fair share of the work.

  2. Homework Assignments (30%): Some preparation is expected! Class runs much more smoothly if you are aware of the topic ahead of time and ready to discuss it. These assignments will help inform your contributions to the class. I don't expect you to read up on each subject in huge depth, but you must do the reading from our assigned books listed on the Lecture Schedule.

    Each assignment usually has some "short-answer" questions (very simple if you've done the reading). There will also be a topic-specific question or two requiring longer (multi-paragraph) answers, or the occasional calculation. There won't always be "right" or "wrong" answers for the longer questions, but I expect you to present (where asked) answers which reflect some personal critical thinking backed up with references when needed. Although discussion with your classmates is encouraged, final work must be in your own words! (See Academic Integrity below.)

    I will dock points if your answers are particularly poorly written (contain egregious grammar and/or spelling errors; lack citations where needed, etc.). Also, multiple pages should be stapled together or you will lose points.

    These assignments will be on ELMS. Work must be turned in on the duedate (that's what a deadline means).

  3. Project (20%): Early in the semester you will be randomly assigned into groups of about five people each. Each group will research a pseudoscience topic not on the Lecture Schedule and give a ~15 minute presentation about it to the class during one of the last two colloquia. The group will also submit a short 8-10 page paper on the topic both on paper as well as electronically. The paper will be written by everyone in the group and must have proper citations. It does not need to be totally new original research, but instead can be a report on existing research (more details during class).

    One fourth of the project grade will be given for an annotated bibliography and outline which will be due about one month into the semester. Another fourth will be based on draft of the paper, due in early April. I will comment on those drafts and they will undergo some peer review. One fourth of the grade will be on the final paper and one fourth on the final presentation. See Lecture Schedule for due dates as they evolve.

  4. Outside Class Participation (20%)

    Scholars is a living/learning program. As part of building the academic community of SDU, you are expected to attend (and reflect on) experiences beyond the colloquium classroom. In particular, there are four "extra-curricular" items we require.
    • Academic Showcase: Scholars puts on a huge affair near the end of the semester where nearly all the sophomores display posters of what they did for their capstone projects. We require you to visit so that you can see firsthand

      • that the prospect of a Capstone shouldn't scare you: it's very doable!
      • and some examples of what people do for that project.
    • Student Interview: While we are not your official academic advisors, we require that you make an appointment to see one of our four SDU staff members in the SDU office within the first few weeks of class (just as we did in the fall). Sign ups will be outside the SDU office door. Talk to Dr. Romani or myself during lecture if you cannot make any of the scheduled office hours.

      We will discuss how last semester went for you, your collegiate goals, interests outside SDU, your participation in SDU this year and next. We'll also listen to your concerns and try to answer any of your questions about Scholars, SDU and Maryland.

    • Excursion: You are encouraged to attend any and all excursions this semester, but you are required to attend at least one. We usually have five or six to choose from, including some we leave to the Student Advisory Board to plan.

    • Reflection Essay: You will write a reflection essay due on the last day of class which bears on your experience with Scholars and/or SDU this year. On the header above, you'll see a link for "Reflection Essay Prompts" which includes guided questions to make this a meaningful exercise for you and for us. We take these very seriously as feedback on what is working well with SDU and Scholars and what is not and how you are adapting and thriving within SDU. If you feel strongly critical, please phrase your criticism in a constructive way, i.e., suggest ways we can improve. You will be held accountable for poor grammar and spelling, but an active first person voice is completely acceptable here ("I enjoyed...", etc.).

Back to Top

Classroom Rules

Please note that consistent violations of these rules will result in a very poor grade in this class (C or worse which is a "fail" by SDU standards).

Is this an ad hominem attack?
  • Civility: This is an academic environment, and while you may "feel" passionate about a subject, shouting and cursing are not the way to make your point. Keep your cool, and keep an open mind. Sometimes you are wrong, sometimes they are wrong and sometimes both of you are wrong. And sometimes, even if rarely, it's impossible to prove that either of you is right or wrong.
  • Safety: Any escalation in a heated discussion towards actual threats of bodily harm are reportable to the kind of authorities you don't want to deal with.
  • Respect: No laptops (exceptions can be found on the Lecture Schedule), random web surfing or games, newspapers, crosswords, gameboys, ipods... does it really need saying? Show respect to your peers and to me by engaging in the material during classtime!

Back to Top

Extra Credit?

There will be no extra credit.

Back to Top

Disability Accommodation

Students with a documented disability who require academic accommodations should contact me as soon as possible. If you suspect you might require such in this class or any, please feel free to discuss this with me during office hours, or head straight to the Disability Service Support office for more information.

Back to Top

Click on the image for an example of scary pseudoscience with real consequences.

Academic Integrity

The University of Maryland, College Park has a nationally recognized Code of Academic Integrity, administered by the Student Honor Council. This Code sets standards for academic integrity at Maryland for all undergraduate and graduate students. As a student you are responsible for upholding these standards for this course. It is very important for you to be aware of the definitions and consequences of cheating, fabrication, facilitation, and plagiarism. For more information on the Code of Academic Integrity or the Student Honor Council, please visit or go straight to the source.

Back to Top

Copyright Issues and Your Notes

Selling or distributing copies or modified copies of instructors' course materials or assisting another person or entity in selling or distributing those materials should be considered a violation of the University Code of Student Conduct, Part 9(k). In general, only some of the overhead presentations shown in class will be available on the web. They won't necessarily make a lot of sense by themselves, however, so don't use them in lieu of coming to class! (Besides, then you'd be missing out on easy points - see § Class Participation.) Students may always request a reviewing of them during office hours on a face to face basis.

Back to Top

Course Evaluations

CourseEvalUM will be open for students to complete their evaluations later in the semester. Students can go directly to the website to complete their evaluations. You will be alerted when the evaluation sites are ready closer to that time via your official University e-mail account.

Students who complete evaluations for all of their courses in the previous semester (excluding summer), can access the posted results via Testudo's CourseEvalUM Reporting link for any course on campus that has at least a 70% response rate. You can find more information, including periodic updates, at the IRPA course evaluation website.

The expectation is that all students will complete these. This is YOUR chance to anonymously evaluate this class: please use this opportunity! I have altered courses before based on constructive criticism from students.

Back to Top

*The two sections (101 and 102) of the Freshman colloquium (CPSP11xD where x=8 for Fall and 9 for Spring) are required for the College Park Scholars "Science, Discovery and the Universe" (SDU) program. They can be taken in either order (Fall then Spring or vice versa) and cover two different aspects of the program.

Last Modified: Jan 2014 subject to change
header photo credits:;
photo cr:;'s%20stories.htm