When Science Goes Wrong: Scientific Mistakes, Self-Deception, Cognitive Bias, Fraud (55+)

While science and the products of science are a fundamental pillar of modern technological society, some aspects of science are not well understood. Far from being an infallible source of new information and theories, science and its methods can be misused, misunderstood and even co-opted by those with ideological or financial agendas. Scientific errors that make the headlines have a way of undermining public confidence in science when they should do the reverse: science is self-correcting, and identifying errors leads to new understanding.

We’ll examine exactly what “science” is, then look at nine case studies in which the search for understanding led to serious mistakes.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Explain the difference between deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning
  • Identify several different kinds of cognitive bias, and give an example of each
  • Give examples of where the scientific process has been corrupted by ideology
  • Give examples of situations where the scientific process has been corrupted by money
  • Discuss the limitations of science as a method for describing the world

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1:

How do we know what we know: The invention of science

  • Deduction, induction, abduction and consiliences
  • A scientific method
  • A revolution in physics and astronomy
  • Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn
  • Physics unifies disparate phenomena
  • Scientific societies
  • Peer review and its failures
  • A legal definition of science
  • Pathological science

Failures of applied science:

  • The thalidomide tragedy
  • The Chernobyl disaster                                                      

Week 2

Case study A. DDT, CFCs and antibiotics: Ignorance of ecology, and a failure to apply systems thinking

  • Rachel Carson and Silent Spring
  • Bioaccumulation
  • A smear campaign
  • Antibiotic effectiveness and natural selection
  • CFCs and the ozone “hole”

Case study B. The Martian Canals: Believing is seeing

  • Mars and telescopes
  • Schiaparelli’s “canali”
  • Percival Lowell
  • Pareidolia: seeing patterns in randomness
  • The “face” on Mars

Week 3:           

Case study C. Lamarck, eugenics and Lysenko: Science perverted by ideology

  • Lamarck, Darwin and genetics
  • Political ideologies adopt Darwinism
  • Paul Kammerer and the midwife toad
  • Lysenko and the “vernalisation” of crops
  • Epigenetics and the hologenome
  • Lateral gene flow and endosymbiosis

Case study D. Piltdown Man: Fraud or practical joke?

  • Early human fossil discoveries
  • Neanderthal man
  • The Piltdown bones and their initial interpretation
  • A second look
  • Whodunnit?

Week 4:           

Case study E. Intelligence and race: Cherry-picking the data

  • Phrenology and physiognomy
  • Racism and culture
  • Intelligence testing and its pitfalls
  • Sir Cyril Burt’s twins
  • Lies, damned lies, and statistics: The Bell Curve wars

Case studies F1 and F2: Two examples of weird beliefs

  • Chemtrails
  • The flat Earth                

Week 5:           

Case study G. Cold fusion: Wishful thinking

  • Protons, neutrons and isotopes
  • Nuclear fission and fusion
  • Controlling nuclear reactions
  • Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann’s experiment
  • Explanations

Case study H. The age of the Earth: Physics vs. geology and biology

  • William Thompson, Baron Kelvin
  • Thermodynamics and a cooling Earth
  • Evidence from geology and biology
  • Physics snobbery
  • Radioactivity and the new physics

Week 6:

Case study I. Vaccines and autism: Fear, credulity and fraud

  • Variolation, vaccination and early successes
  • Polio vaccine and quality control
  • The end of smallpox and the rise of complacency
  • Andrew Wakefield and the autism connection
  • The Lancet retraction

Summary: The limits of science

  • When science goes wrong: The influence of money and ideology
  • Cognitive biases
  • Scepticism and denialism
  • Junk science and fake news
  • Belief and proof
  • A final, unifying theory, with a single set of equations?      

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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