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Fall 2019:

ESPM 3921: Science and critical thinking for environmental issues in the information age (3 credits)


M/W 3:00-4:15 PM, 64 BioScience (St. Paul campus)

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 Course Description

We live in an era of big data and 24 hour news cycles, where most people are regularly bombarded with information from multiple sources. We use this information to make important decisions related to environmental issues, from major policy decisions to personal lifestyle choices. Many debates surrounding environmental issues invoke moral or ethical principles, such as the conservation of endangered species, genetic modification of organisms, and social inequities in the impacts of environmental crises on human populations. As a result, environmental problem solving and decision making requires simultaneously evaluating complex scientific and ethical arguments. Several aspects of human psychology mean that we do not reliably make logical choices when presented with complex information. Furthermore, data and science are frequently used to mislead, from the naïve misuse of statistics to deliberate misinformation campaigns. As a result, weighing evidence and rational decision-making for complex issues requires skepticism, critical thinking, and lots of practice.

In this course, students will develop critical thinking tools and cultivate scientific skepticism for evaluating claims encountered in peer-reviewed scientific papers, popular press articles, or on social media. Examples and case studies will focus primarily on environmental science, but will also include issues relating to public policy and public health to demonstrate the range of ways in which data and science can be used or misused to support a position. To create the necessary habits of mind for skepticism and critical thinking, this course will cover background material from ethics, neurology, behavioral economics, statistics, and logic. We will employ a number of active learning strategies, and in-class meetings will frequently consist of students actively engaged in processing and understanding course content.

Upon leaving this course students will be able to confidently evaluate the veracity of information as they encounter it in multiple contexts throughout their lives. Students will understand how views of the role of ethics in scientific inquiry have evolved, and the roles of science, uncertainty, and ethics in determining public opinion and policy decisions on environmental topics. Students will learn to identify recognize misinformation in its various forms and to articulate why a particular piece of information is misleading. We will explore the various ways that our intuition and memory make interpreting data and statistics challenging, and develop tools and habits of mind to overcome these challenges.


After taking this course, you should be able to:

·       Critically evaluate the evidence for factual claims as they are encountered in scientific publications and in real life

·       Distinguish appropriate from inappropriate uses of statistical and causal reasoning

·       Recognize that the human brain systematically distorts information and how this affects learning, assessment of evidence, and decision-making

·       Summarize and evaluate the state of the science on a range of controversial environmental topics

·       Distinguish scientific from moral/ethical arguments in environmental controversies

·       Recognize when you are being misled or presented with biased information

·       Apply skepticism and critical thinking tools to real life issues in a constructive way