“What is a Fact?” A humanities course prepares STEM students to grow to be higher scientists

Text labeled: Unusual Courses, from The Conversation

Course title:

What is a fact?

What sparked the concept for the course?

With all of the conspiracy theories circulating in 2020 when COVID-19 broke out, I desired to help my students recognize and cope with them. I used to be also frightened about political propaganda. And at my STEM-focused school, I wanted to indicate what humanities scholars can achieve. That's why I created this course, which is humanities courses for freshmen. Until now, almost every student had a scientific, technical, engineering or mathematical focus.

What might be examined within the course?

We start with per week called “What is Data?” In Latin, “data” simply means “things that are given.” Data will be in the shape of measurements: “This bowl of water weighs x.” But data may mean: “It reminds me of my grandma.” How do when something might make sense or if it’s just nonsense?

A later course that students find particularly interesting deals with apophenia, the tendency to see patterns where there are none, akin to the person within the moon or star constellations.

Diagram illustrating data points colored and connected in various ways as information, knowledge, insight, wisdom and conspiracy theory
Conspiracy theories connect many things, but that doesn't make them right.
Screenshot of a meme

Why is that this course relevant now?

A fact is an interpretation of knowledge. In physics class, you learn to interpret physical data, find patterns, relate those patterns to others, and create facts about them. If your argument is logical, your interpretation may appear within the journal Nature Physics.

However, humanities prepare you to grasp what facts are – whether or not they are based on biology or the Bible, dietary science or novels.

What is a very important lesson from the course?

An necessary lesson is that many major conspiracy theories like QAnon are about jumping to conclusions as quickly as possible. Being a great student and a great scholar means accepting that what you might be studying might not be meaningful or reveal a pattern. What we're exploring here is how not to leap to conclusions. And this lesson applies to things in the true world in addition to lab work.

What materials does the course include?

We watch YouTubers hbomberguy debunks global warming denial. We read Kurt Gödel on the incontrovertible fact that logical systems must all the time be flawed. We read poems and stories and introduce science students to interpreting artistic data, a process that’s just as rigorous as interpreting scientific data.

What does the course prepare students for?

Without the kind of critical considering that this course teaches, scientists could also be vulnerable to propaganda and unable to share their ideas effectively, whether within the media or to their colleagues, friends, and family.

Students learn to have a look at the world with fresh, skeptical eyes. You learn to acknowledge illogical arguments and violent rhetorical tactics. In the Middle Ages, the humanities – grammar, logic, rhetoric – prepared people for science. What is a fact? This is to indicate students that collecting data and skepticism doesn't stop once you allow the lab. A questioning, open-minded attitude is a necessary life skill.

image credit : theconversation.com