Honors 120: Science and Society (Science Fiction and the Public Discourse of Science)

Note: This course was team-taught.


Course Description

What happens when science meets fiction? How “accurate” is the reporting of science in the popular media? How have artists explored science using literature and a cinematic lens? How do these works challenge our understanding of such concepts as space, time, reality, the body, and reproduction? What ethical concerns arise? These are some of the questions we may consider as we read excerpts and short stories by contemporary science fiction authors like Greg Bear and Steven Bratman, examine scientific publications, and watch a variety of films including The Boys From Brazil, Jurassic Park, and I, Robot. This course will explore the scientific content and background of these works, and separate out science fact from science “fiction” to consider how mainstream American culture encounters science.

The premise of this course is that even non-scientists have to engage with scientific ideas and issues in our everyday lives as consumers, voters, and even as audiences. Our discussions this semester will therefore center on several “non-expert” vehicles for science and society: popular culture (e.g., science fiction); mass media and advertising; nutrition; and health and wellness.


Course Texts

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

Science and Society (Ed. Richard W. Grinnell)

Boys from Brazil (film)

Jurassic Park (film)

Steven Bratman’s “Deletion”

Marie Ming’s “Swings”

Greg Bear’s “Blood Music”

I, Robot (film)

Nicolas Pethes’s “Terminal Men: Biotechnological Experimentation and the Reshaping of ‘the Human’ in Medical Thrillers”


Selected Assignments

Credibility Analysis

Identify at least four “experts” from episodes of at least three distinct mainstream television shows dealing in some way with science and evaluate which you find to be the most credible. Then, analyze why you made that decision and articulate the criteria you seem to use subconsciously when deciding who is credible to speak on science in the mainstream media. Possible television shows include Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, Physics of the Impossible, and Mythbusters.

Science in the Press

Find a mainstream media report or discussion about science and then trace the science back to the original research report from which it was taken. Analyze the two discourses to come to a conclusion about how they present the same information in different ways, and why.

Pseudoscience Hunt

Find the website for a product that relies on some form of pseudoscience. Browse through the different pages to see how the creators use pseudoscience to market their product. Then, using your own perceptions and the framework provided by Goldacre and our class:

  1. Identify the “tools” of pseudoscience the site uses. (Individual)
  2. Discuss how these tools are being used. (Individual)
  3. Make up either a product that is supposed to do something wonderful or a substance in the environment that may be of concern, and prepare a brief (no more than 6 slides) PowerPoint presentation that uses the techniques of pseudoscience to sell the product/idea. The last slide should be an explanation of the particular pseudoscience you used. (Group)


Spring 2012 Syllabus: Honors 120


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