Thursday, September 04, 2014

Classes this semester: "Aliens" and "Evolution in the Public Sphere"

by Salman Hameed

Students are back and classes have started (nooooo!). It is quite likely that some of the posts here will follow the classes that I'm teaching this semester. So here is a summary of the classes and you will hear more about them over the course of the next few months.

The first one is called Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind. I have taught it several times before and is one of my favorite classes to teach. The class looks at the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence from the perspective of different academic disciplines (and no - we still, have no Raelians and Scientology). This year we will be focusing on the possible impact of ET signal detection on human society. Here is the course abstract:
evidence for any ET sighting on Earth). It is a lot of fun as we look at the history of UFO and alien abduction claims and approach these topics through the lens of psychology (especially alien abduction) and sociology. In addition, we do some astronomy as well (detection of extrasolar planets) and look at the dueling positions of astronomers and biologists on the likelihood of intelligent civilizations in the universe. The final segment of the course used to deal with religions based on aliens (such as
Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind
This course can be summed up as: everything you wanted to know about aliens but were afraid to ask (a scientist).  The course will explore the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence from the perspective of several different fields. We will look at the history of UFO sighting claims and analyze the reliability of eye-witness testimonies, explore psychological & sociological reasons behind claims of alien abductions, and analyze the current state of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) from the perspective of astronomy and planetary research. We will also examine how film and television have shaped our view of aliens in popular culture. We will conclude the course by looking at religions that have been inspired by UFOs and extraterrestrials. 
The second class is titled Science & Religion: Biological Evolution in the Public Sphere. This is a new course and so you may see more posts on this topic. The course looks at the history of public controversies over biological evolution and explores the underlying religious and socio-cultural reasons behind it. The first part of the course is spent on the public reception of The Origin of Species, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, the Scopes Trial, and the more recent Dover trial and the Nye-Ham debate. The second part of the course looks at public polls on evolution and explore religious, sociological, and/or cultural factors that may shape public attitude towards evolution. The last part of the course looks at two particular topics: the public controversy over Islamic creationism in Europe, and on efforts to include creationism in US public schools ("who decides what should be taught in public schools"?). I'm pretty sure that this class will evolve (ha!) considerably after my experience this semester. Here is the abstract for the class:
Science & Religion: Biological Evolution in the Public Sphere 
Biological evolution is often at the center of science and religion debates. While there is a broad consensus among biologists about the common descent of humans from prior species and the processes that drive biological evolution, public debates continue over the validity of evolution. According to the latest Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe in a creationist view of human origins, and there are constant efforts by various school boards across the country to include some form of creationism in biology classes. Despite all the scientific evidence, why is biological evolution at the center of public debates today? In this course, we will look at sociological, psychological, and cultural factors that shape the public reception of evolution in the US and abroad. We will also look at the reliability of polling surveys and will conclude the course by analyzing the role of media in public evolution debate, from the Scopes Trial to the recent debate between Bill Nye and creationist, Ken Ham.
More on these subjects later.


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