Big Bangs and Little Green Men:

  Thinking Critically About the Universe and Its Origins

Credit for Astronomy 101 and Philosophy 115


Spring 2009
T & TH 10:35-3:20 CCC 351


David Shapiro                                                 John VanLeer

Office:  149                                                      Office:  145

Phone:  425-352-8118                                                Phone:  425-352-8157

Email:                       Email:

Office Hrs: M/W 1:30-2:30 & by appt.           Office Hrs:  T/TH 1:30-2, by appt or email


Web site


Course Overview

This learning community is a course in how to think about weird (and not-so-weird) things; it uses the study of astronomy and related topics as a way to explore what counts as a good reason for believing something to be true.  It is a course in critical thinking as applied to claims and phenomena that many people find hard to either justify or refute.  A central theme of the course is the scientific method: how does science proceed in the production of knowledge and how does that method differ from other methods of producing and justifying beliefs?  We will spend a good deal of time looking into both scientific and theological claims about the origin of the universe; in doing so, we will compare the epistemological differences between creationist and evolutionary theory. 


Students should expect to immerse themselves in activities and laboratories which will allow them to gather scientific information directly related to the topics of study.  They will read, write, and speak regularly.  They will work individually and collaboratively.  Students will become enlightened in all aspects of the environment in which they live.  It is also hoped that students will develop a sense of pride in their new understanding and a feeling of community with all members of the class.  That combination of intellectual pride and community will make the class both an enjoyable and memorable component of a lifetime of learning.  Ultimately, students can expect to come out of this class with a deeper understanding of astronomy, of what counts as a good reason for believing something to be true, and an improved ability to evaluate arguments, both in science and in their day-to-day lives.



Texts, Readings, and Materials

·         Bennett, Jeffrey, Donahue, Megan, Schneider, Nicholas, & Voit, Mark, The Cosmic Perspective (5th  edition)

·         Items on e-reserve

You need a UWNet ID to access this; you can get this online if you don’t have one yet.  We will offer assistance in class if this is new to you

  • Scientific calculator
  • Portfolio folder



Learning Outcomes:

As you are probably already aware, all of Cascadia’s courses are designed with four governing outcomes:  Learn Actively; Think Critically, Creatively, and Reflectively; Communicate with Clarity and Originality; and Interact in Diverse and Complex Environments.  These outcomes are woven throughout Big Bangs and Little Green Men, and are offered in the following statements.  Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

·      Gather evidence and develop theories about the dimensions and physical properties of the universe, including its origins.

·      Use personally and professionally collected data and information to critically evaluate scientific and pseudoscientific models and theories.

·      Apply scientifically-proven models to predict future astronomical occurrences and achieve new levels of understanding as to the nature of space and time. 

·      Recognize fallacious reasoning  in their own work and the works of others and be able to fix or avoid such fallacies in their own reasoned arguments.

·      Collaborate to critically evaluate and discuss evidence and determine how it pertains to proposed models, theories, and case studies related to astronomy and science in general.

·      Communicate their findings using oral, written, and graphic communication styles with the assistance of a variety of contemporary technological resources.


Course Concepts and Themes

Some of the key concepts and themes students must understand in order to achieve the intended outcomes include:

·      Scientific Method

·      Theory

·      Hypothesis

·      Model

·      Argument

·      Evidence

·      Critical Evaluation

·      Induction

·      Deduction

·      Hypothetical Reasoning

·      Validity

·      Measurement

·      Proof

·      Possibility

·      Paradigm

·      Bias

·      Competing Worldviews

·      Reasonable

·      Confirmation Bias

·      Representativeness Heuristic

·      Knowledge and Belief

·      Justification vs. Explanation

·      Logic terms: truth, falsity, validity, invalidity, soundness, cogency



Academic Success and Classroom Dignity

The best way to succeed in this class is to attend every class and participate with vigor.  The classroom experience itself is part of the course material, and ultimately, your physical presence, your listening, and your active participation make this course happen.  Thus, being prepared for class not only means having done the reading but also, first, sharing your thoughts on the material and, second, engaging in critical discussion of the reading and our commentary on that reading. 


This class is a learning community.  Our community works best when it is conducted with respect for differing ideas and learning styles.  This will enable us to engage in discussions fairly and constructively.  Respect for our community also includes arriving on time, remaining for the entire class, and not being disruptive or distracting to others (such as using cell phones).



Academic Honesty: 

Cascadia Community College’s Academic Honest policy can be found on page 54 of the catalog.  It reads:

      “The College regards acts of academic dishonesty, including such activities as plagiarism, cheating and/or/violations of integrity in information technology, as very serious offenses. In the event that cheating, plagiarism or other forms of academic dishonesty are discovered, each incident will be handled as deemed appropriate. Care will be taken that students' rights are not violated and that disciplinary procedures are instituted only in cases where documentation or other evidence of the offense(s) exists. A description of all such incidents shall be forwarded to the Vice President for Student Success, where a file of such occurrences will be maintained. The vice president may institute action against a student according to the college's disciplinary policies and procedures as described in the Student Handbook.”

In short, don’t cheat.  Don’t download papers from the Internet and try to pass them off as your own.  If you draw upon someone else’s materials for your ideas, make sure to cite your source.  If you have any questions about what constitutes a breach of academic integrity, please ask us.  If you’re feeling so overwhelmed by school and other responsibilities that cheating seems like the only way out, please talk to us.  Accommodations can be made.  In education, what really matters is the process, not the outcome.  If you turn in work without having done the work, you’ve missed the whole point. It’s not the case that if you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself; (you’re also cheating your fellow students, your instructors, and really, the whole educational system); but you’re mostly cheating yourself.  So, don’t do it.

And be aware that any infractions of the Academic Honesty policy will be dealt with quickly and aggressively.



Students with Disabilities: 

If you have or suspect you have a disability and need an accommodation please contact Disability Support Services at 352-8383 or at, or visit the DSS office, room 130E in the Kodiak Corner/Student Services office to schedule an appointment.  Services and accommodations through DSS are not retroactive.



Other Policies: 

Additional policies regarding acceptable use of information technology, drugs and alcohol, privacy, student rights, and student code of conduct can also be found in the Handbook or online at 

Become familiar with these policies and reference as necessary.  And if you have any questions about them, please don’t hesitate to ask us.



Assessments and Grading:

Students will be assessed in a variety of ways.  These will include an article analysis, classroom exercises and discussion, laboratories, homework, a multimedia project and presentation, quizzes, independent  essay questions, and mid-term and final exams.  They are outlined below.  Additional information will be made available in the future.


All assignments will be graded on a scale of 0 – 100%.  However, they will be weighted individually for calculation of the final grade.


1)       Article analysis (10%):  One article analysis will be assigned during the quarter.  The student will select an article from a reliable magazine or journal, read and digest the information, and write a 3-4 page review.  The article must be approved by the instructor.  The review will include some brief summaries, but should focus on a critical analysis of how the article was written, its scientific legitimacy, and its value to the public.  The review should be written intelligently and with appropriate grammatical correctness. 

2)       Short argumentative/persuasive essays: (15%) You will write 4 short (2-3 pages) papers in which you will stake out a position on a topic and defend your view with good reasons.  Typically, you will need to clearly state your thesis, support it, consider objections to your view, and respond to those objections clearly.

3)       In-class exercises/discussions: (10%)You will often participate in classroom activities that will be graded for participation.  An engaged participation in the activity earns full credit; you can count on at least one such activity a week; it’s additional incentive (should you need it) to show up and participate in class.


4)       Portfolio of scientific inquiries / laboratories (20%):  Scientific inquiries and labs are investigations, using scientific methodologies, of phenomena related to topics studied during the course.  The inquiries vary in nature, as do the products which will be assessed.  Products may include graphs, data sets, analyses of data, diagrams, observational records, etc.  All products should be executed with precision and neatly organized in a portfolio that will be assessed toward the end of the quarter.  Some elements may be posted to your e-portfolio.


5)       Quizzes (5%):  Quizzes will be brief, multiple choice assessments designed to give the student feedback on their knowledge attainment before the mid-term and final exams.  There will be approximately four quizzes during the quarter, and each will be about 15 questions.  All will be announced.  No make-ups.


6)       Mid-term (15%):  The mid-term examination will be multiple-choice and will be designed to test knowledge and conceptual understanding of material covered in the first half of the course.  Prior arrangements must be made for alternative scheduling.


7)       Final exam (10%):  The final examination will be multiple-choice and will be designed to test knowledge and conceptual understanding of material covered in the second half of the course.  Prior arrangements must be made for alternative scheduling.

8)       Final project (15%):  A final project designed to weave the major themes of the learning community together will be required at the end of the course.  The project will be authentic and performance based.  Specific details will be made available as the course proceeds.


Cascadia’s grading policy is in both the Catalog.  We use a decimal grading system that translates to letter grades as follows:



























This equates to a 100 point scale as follows:


100% - 96% = 4.0

83% = 2.8

71% = 1.6

95% - 94% = 3.9

82% = 2.7

70% = 1.5

93%  = 3.8

81% = 2.6

69% - 68% = 1.4

92% = 3.7

80% = 2.5

67% - 66% = 1.3

91% = 3.6

79% = 2.4

65% = 1.2

90% = 3.5

78% = 2.3

64% = 1.1

89% = 3.4

77% = 2.2

63% = 1.0

88% = 3.3

76% = 2.1

62% = 0.9

87% = 3.2

75% = 2.0

61% = 0.8

86% = 3.1

74% = 1.9

60% = 0.7

85% = 3.0

73% = 1.8

<60% = 0

84% = 2.9

72% = 1.7



Your grade should not be a mystery to you at any point during or after the course.  If you have any questions about how you are doing, please don’t hesitate to ask.


Proposed Schedule:

This schedule is a plan, not a contract written in stone.  It is subject to change if necessary to support our collaborative learning process.  You will all be notified of any changes.



Topics and Readings

Topics and Readings

day 1



·  Introduction to Critical Thinking


·  Just-So Stories (handouts)

·  Weird Readings (handouts)


·  The Science of Astronomy


·  Chapter 3


day 2



·   What do I believe and why?


·  Ariely, Dan, “The effect of expectations”

·  Ariely, Dan, “The power of price”

·  Diestler, Sherry, “Fair Mindedness”


·  The Celestial Sphere v. The Universe


·  Chapters 1 & 2




·   Arguments and Reasoning


·  Schick, Theodore, “Arguments good, bad, and weird”

·  Descartes, “Discourse on Method”

·  Plato, excerpt from the Timaeus

Assignment(s) Due:

·  Short Paper #1


Motion, Energy & Gravity


·  Chapter 4





·   Fallacies and Bad Reasoning


·  Vaugh, Lewis, “Faulty Reasoning”

·  Shulman, Max, Love is a Fallacy

·  Schick, Chapter 2


·  Light & Matter


·  Chapter 5


·  Quiz 1




·   Theories of Knowledge


·  Plato, selection from the Republic

·  Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”

·  Meiland, Jack, “What ought we to believe?”

Assignment(s) Due:

·  Short Paper #2


·  Our Planetary System


·  Chapter 7


Proposed Schedule (cont.)




·   Personal Experience and Truth

·   Pseudo Science and Science


·  Hines, “Pseudoscience and the Paranormal” 

·  Mlodinow, Leonard, “Illusions of Patterns and patterns of illusion”


·  Formation of the Solar System


Chapter 8


Quiz 2




·   What Should I Believe Is Real?


·  Brafman, Ori, and Rom Brafman, “The Bipolar epidemic and the chameleon effect.”

·  Hurley, Ch. 9.6 “Science and Superstition”

Assignment(s) Due:

·  Short Paper #3


·  Planets


Selections from Chapters 9-13


Midterm Exam





·   Scientific Method/Induction


·  Schick, “Science and Its Pretenders”

·  Hurly, Ch. 9.5 “Hypothetical/Scientific Reasoning”

·  Salmon, Wesley; “An Encounter with David Hume”


·  Our Sun and Other Stars


Chapters 14 & 15





·   Application of the Scientific Method


·  Sheldrake, Rupert (all selections)

Assignments Due:

·  Short Paper #4


·  Star Evolution


Selections from  Chapters 16-18





·   Evolution and Creationism


·  Solomon, Robert, “Spirituality, Religion, and Science”

·  Dawkins, Robert, “The Blind Watchmaker”

·  Behe, Michael, “The Concept of Gradual Evolution is Flawed”

·  Ruse, Michael, “New Creationists and Their Discredited Arguments”


·  Astrobiology


Chapter 24


Quiz 3






·   Evolution and Creationism


·  Moore, John, “From Genesis to Genetics” (eres)

·  DeLoria, Vine, “Evolution, Creationism, and Other Myths”

·  Plantinga, Alvin, “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal”

·  Pennock, Robert, “A Reply to Plantinga’s Modest Proposal”


·  Origins of Space and Time


Chapters S3 & 23


Portfolios Due




·   Final Projects


Final Exam