A course in nonsense

For many years I’ve offered a First-Year Seminar at Wooster entitled, “Nonsense! (And Why It’s So Popular)”. Today we finished the latest version of the course. The semester went so well I want to celebrate. The class of first-year students above (with our excellent Teaching Assistant Malik holding the book on the left) was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and creative. They all participated in the discussions and have the record of 100% of written assignments turned in on time. And they did all this work in a class that started at 8:00 am! The Nonsense course website has all the academic details.

Here is our course description and rationale: “A deep streak of irrationality runs through humanity, especially in these days of “post-truth” and “fake news”. Belief that the Earth is flat has increased dramatically among American young people, and a curious conspiracy theory centered on the mysterious “Q-Anon” alleges dramatic secret battles between the “Deep State” and a satanic cabal for control of the US government. Horrific mass shootings are dismissed as “false flags” employing “crisis actors” for obscure political gains. Anti-vaccination groups have triggered new outbreaks of diseases we thought were nearly extinct, and quack medical “cures” are as popular as ever. Why is such nonsense so common when information has never been easier to access? What are the dangers to society when irrationality is common? Do we have logical tools to sort bad ideas from good? In this seminar we will examine conspiracy theories, crank science, revisionist history, and other topics from the edges of reason. We will use original literature, websites, and films to explore the lure of these ideas and their social origins. Our primary textbook will be The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. Our course objective is to improve our own critical thinking, writing and speaking … and, in the words of the late Carl Sagan, to light a candle in a demon-haunted world.”

This book by the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe team was a superb resource throughout the semester. I highly recommend it to any readers.

Obviously there is plenty of nonsense these days to keep a class busy. Our academic goal was to develop critical thinking, writing and speaking skills by sharpening them against the waves of irrationality around us. We also found that learning the history of an idea was where to start understanding its attraction and tenacity. The students will tell you that our studies of the Flat Earth stream of nonsense were the most frustrating — and illuminating. Fake News was the most irritating was the most irritating, and Holocaust Denial the most upsetting. Of course, every week of this semester had plenty of news about conspiracy theories. Above is an image of the class on a typical day. Note the name placards for each student. We used these not just to learn names, but also to keep the seating arrangements fluid through the semester.

Each student wrote a research paper on a particular area of pseudoscience or conspiracy theory, and then gave a presentation to the class, as Blakely is doing above. Every assignment provided tools and skills for this capstone experience, including writing essays, constructing annotated bibliographies, and giving short oral reports. This class came through with the best research papers I’ve seen at this level.

Teaching this class was an academic dream because the students were so responsive and responsible. Malik was the ideal Teaching Assistant because of his incisive intellect (he’s a philosophy and psychology double major), communication skills, and passion for teaching. He was an excellent role model for these beginning students.

This was an exciting course to teach because of the new material and challenges ever week. We live in an age of unprecedented nonsense, but I like to think that small groups of rational citizens like these students are beginning to make a difference.


About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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