Alternative Facts: The Undoing of Science in America

Professor Betsy Sherman, Ph.D.

Teaching Assistant Jorja Rose, BA, class of ‘18

Tues. and Fri. 10:00 am-11:50 am; Dickinson 148



There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. (Isaac Asimov, 1980).

Does the recent U.S. election suggest that the problem Asimov identified over 30 years ago is more of concern than ever? In 1980, Asimov was writing about the energized movement of the time in support of “creation science,” a fallacious argument against evolution. Little has changed in the intervening years in terms of the acceptance of evolution by Americans. Depending on what poll one reads, approximately 50% of Americans do not accept that humans evolved from extinct primates, roughly the same proportion that does not accept human-induced climate change. Are people’s political affiliations predictors of their views on evolution, vaccines, GMOs, climate change, gay conversion therapy, astrology, homeopathy? We will examine what science is and is not and discuss the central importance of peer review. We must all make decisions based on imperfect knowledge and perhaps no one understands that better than scientists. Central to this course will be an examination of the impact of American anti-intellectualism on our ability to govern ourselves democratically and on our capacity to use science to lessen human suffering.



Topics we will consider (we will collaborate on this list):


            God, religion
            Natural selection and Darwin's Finches


            New Face of Creationism
            Defending Intelligent Design
            Views on evolution: Pew Research Center

Why we believe and changing minds

        Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
        You’re Not Going to Change Your Mind
        Why We Believe Obvious Untruths
        Science Denial Across the Political Divide- Liberals and Conservatives Are Similarly Motivated to Deny
        The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot: extract (newspaper)

        The Optimism Bias (refereed journal)

        Efforts to Eradicate Complex Academic Writing - The Atlantic

Is science simply a social construct?

    Science as a Social Construct 

    A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies

    Bait and Switch-Sokal 2017

    Postmodern assault on science

    Why Has Critique Run out of Steam
    Fear of Scandalous Knowledge: Arguing About Coherence in Scientific Theory and Practice

Climate change
Climate change is complex-NYT

            U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report 2017
            Muzzling scientists

            Economy vs. science


Genes and phenotype

                     Sociobiology--another biological determinism

                     Academic vigilantism
                    The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature

                    A biological understanding of human nature            
                    Are babies born good?

                    Evolution of alturism

            Genetic determinism


                    Why feminists must understand evolution

                    Meet the alloparents

            Privileged status of empiricism


Multinational corporations



            Mental health

            Big pharma


New technology



            CRISPR (gene editing)


What do we do about it






Other exemplars

            Abstinence lobby and efficacy

            Medical marijuana

            Holistic medicine

            Sexual conversion therapy




Goals for the work in this class

An understanding of what science is

An understanding of its limitations

How to approach a science topic without technical knowledge

How to assess a scientific argument

Living with uncertainty and yet making decisions

Importance of specificity in an argument

How to do research (distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources)

Consider the role of science in a democracy



1-attend all classes and come prepared

            What does it mean to come prepared (careful reading; writing)?

2-participate in class work and discussion

3-submit all written work on time

4-generate your own inquiries




University of California at Berkeley-understanding science

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (2017) National Academies of Science
Learning to learn

Wonder and Skepticism


Class comportment and common decency


It is important for all of us to come together as a group interested in discussing problems in science and society.  Each of us is part of this group, and as such, our behavior is not just about each of us as individuals, but also about being members of a group. 


Be respectful and attentive.  Do not arrive late, as it is disrespectful and disruptive.  Do not leave the room during class, as it is disrespectful and disruptive.  Plan your time.  Use the bathroom before class.  Bring water, tissues, lozenges, etc. with you. Do not engage in any activity that you would avoid at a job interview (e.g. do not pick your nose or skin, do not slouch, play with your hair, chew on your nails, etc.)  Turn off your cell phone before coming to class.  Do not surf the web or check your email during class. 


Class attendance is required.  Plan your work. All assignments must be submitted on time in order to pass this class. Frequently I write assignments on the board or project them in class so be prepared to write them down. If you must miss a class, it is your responsibility to get the assignment and find out from another student about missed work. If you plan to miss class before or after Long Weekend or Thanksgiving, either change your plans or do not take this class.  If you plan to miss the last class, either change your plan, or do not take this class. An absence is an absence with no distinction between excused and not.


The work is the thing.