GEOL3095PHIL3095: Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Dogma

Instructor: Joshua Miller & Zvi Biener

Offered: Spring 2022 - Tu 2:00pm-4:50pm

Location: GEOPHYS 513

Class #: 44999, 44880


Fossils record the history of life while capturing our imaginations. From dinosaurs and mammoths to ancient seashells, fossils have influenced cultures around the world by forming the basis of their self-constructed mythic and scientific pasts. Fossils have also been dangerous sources of knowledge that challenged cultural norms and contributed to scientific revolutions. In this class, we explore the cultural and historical contexts in which fossils were originally encountered and the scientific and philosophical foundations of how they were (and are) understood. We also use fossils to demonstrate the challenges new knowledge must overcome to become accepted, and the reasons truth can be threatening and open to cultural negotiation. The latter also allows us to examine information polarization in historical and contemporary contexts, to diagnose misinformation in contemporary social media, and to analyze the critical role of information vetting in our polarized modern world.

We live in a world with few limits on the availability of information. But to effectively use this information, especially to pursue innovation, it is critical that citizens know how to contextualize and vet it. By exploring the nexus of science and philosophy, this course trains students to seek out the cultural, historical, and scientific contexts of knowledge. By exploring how and why knowledge changes through time, students will gain a uniquely immersive opportunity to internalize the processes of science and to distinguish between the scientific and other ways of generating knowledge. Students will come to appreciate that complex problems rarely result from a simple disagreement about the facts. Rather, like today’s most pressing problems — e.g., anthropogenically induced climate change and proper resource use of a growing human population — they result from high-level disagreements about the “facts” and, more importantly, differing principles related to how knowledge should be generated. Students will be better equipped to address the world’s problems by understanding this complex, often feedback-dominated structure.

While we focus on fossils, the skills developed in this class are broadly translatable. At its core, paleontology is a transdisciplinary field that draws on the tools of biology, geology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Similarly, the instruments of philosophy can be used to explore how knowledge is generated and explored in all fields. Today’s challenges require creative, novel, and highly integrated methods for synthesizing and evaluating diverse datasets. This course will develop students’ skills in critical thinking, observation and data acquisition, reading comprehension, and persuasive communication (written and verbal).