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Geology 220T - The Scientific method and the paradox of controversy

Markes Johnson
, http://www.williams.edu/Geoscience/facultypages/Johnson/Johnson.html
Williams College
Course Summary
This course is an excellent example of Earth history taught from the perspective of the history of geology. Not only does it teach some of the most important concepts in geology, but it also teaches the students about the scientific method and how it has been applied in the real world, resulting in the understanding we have today. Instead of a textbook, the students read articles from scientific journals. Some were historical. The more contemporary ones, dealing with current controversies, tended to disagree with one another. Bibliographies are linked under "Teaching Materials" below.

Course Context:

This course was taught in 1989 and 1990. It was a tutorial, a class split into pairs of students (no more than 10 altogether). Each pair of students met with the instructor once a week to discuss several (usually four) scientific papers. The students took turns writing an eight-page critical syntheses on different topics, so with five papers each, the student pairs could cover all ten topics. It has been superseded by tutorials that emphasize a field approach. Many of the readings need to be updated before any version of the course can be taught again.

For an introductory course, the number of papers could be reduced, and the assignment made lighter. An alternative would be to handle this course as a seminar instead of a tutorial, with ten students meeting together, each of whom writes one critical synthesis paper on a different one of the ten topics.

Course Goals:

This course teaches students:
  • How science works
  • Some central "facts" of science and how confident we are about them
  • How to write a critical synthesis of scientific papers

Course Content:

From the 1988/1989 Williams Course Catalog:

Were the dinosaurs warm blooded or cold blooded? Was there more or less oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere 75 million years ago? Is the pace of evolution gradual or sporadic? Are mass extinctions due to extraterrestrial or terrestiral causes, and are they cyclic or random? These are a few of the controversial issues in historical geology today. Textbooks used in high school and undergraduate curricula often promote the idea that science has but a single correct (and testable) solution for every problem. Students too readily believe there is a rigid (and hence depersonalized) formula for scientific truth. In practice, controversy is the life blood of science, and scientists in any given field vigorously dispute the "facts" as presented by colleagues on the opposite side of an issue. Some issues are so polarized it is difficult to realize that the indiviuals on boths sides are trained, dispassionate scientists. How is science really done and how is scientific progress made? Why are certain issues in vogue and others not? Are there different shadings to scientific truth?

This tutorial begins with an examination of the Baconian principles of science and the ideal model of multiple working hypotheses. Thereafter, a series of case studies will be reviwed using contradictory journal articles selected from a wide sectrum of topics in historical geology. Topics covered will include those listed above, as well as others, like "continental drift," which are now judged by majority opinion to be settled issues. Historical geology offers a good vantage point for general insight on scientific method, both in theory and in practice, because the discipline draws on the methodology of all other sciences. Each week we will try to look at all sides of an issue, not necessarily to tease out the truth, but in order to see what scientists are all about.

Meetings once a week with each pair of students; (arranged); five orally presented written assignments, final examination.

Instructor: M.E. Johnson
Prerequisite: None
Enrollment limited to sophomores

Teaching Materials:

From the original course, here are the original bibliography, questions, and assignments broken down for the eleven subjects that were studied.
  • pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 68kB Nov25 03)
  • MSWord (Microsoft Word 88kB Nov25 03)
Likewise, here is an explaination of the format for the tutorial papers.
  • pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 13kB Nov25 03)
  • MSWord (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov25 03)


5 approximately-eight-page papers per student and a final oral exam. Given the structure of the questions and assignments (linked to teaching materials above), those papers practically wrote themselves.

References and Notes:

Some of the classic papers used in this course are now online: More will be going online every year. Keep checking the Web!