Course Overview

This is a course on the ideas from science that are most widely useful for everyone. Many insights and conceptual tools from scientific thinking are of great utility for all kinds of reasoning, from reading the news critically to making decisions under conditions of uncertainty. The focus in this course is on the errors humans tend to make, and the approaches scientific methodology has developed (and continues to develop) to minimize those errors. The course includes a discussion of the nature of science, what makes science such an effective way of knowing, how both non-scientific thinking and scientific thinking can go awry, and how we can reason more clearly and successfully as individuals, as members of groups, and as citizens of a democracy.

Every day we make decisions that can and should be informed by science. We make decisions as individuals, as voters, and as members of our various communities. We make decisions as students and parents and policy makers. The problem is, we don’t do it so well—a fact sadly apparent in political debates. It’s easy to blame poor decision-making on the greed, irresponsibility, ignorance, or incompetence of other people.  But the problem seems to be more basic than that. It seems we face a paradox. Living in a democracy means that everyone’s view counts the same as everyone else’s. But to make decisions informed by science, we often need to defer to those with relevant expertise. Therefore, we shouldn't rely on a democratic system to make the best decisions. Or should we? This basic tension between science and democratic decision-making serves as a unifying theme for Sense & Sensibility & Science (SSS), a course that aims to equip students with basic tools to be better thinkers.  We will explore key aspects of scientific thinking that everyone should know, especially the many ways that we humans tend to fool ourselves, and how to avoid them—including how to differentiate signal from noise, evaluate causal claims, and avoid reasoning biases. We’ll then look at the best models for using science to guide decisions, since the rational and arational (e.g., values, fears, and goals) then have to be combined. We will explore these themes experientially, often with in-class activities and discussions, and we will culminate in two open-ended projects to design better methods of deliberation and decision making, first as groups, and then as individuals. Co-taught by faculty from Physics, Philosophy, and Psychology, S&S&S fosters intellectual advancement for interdisciplinary knowledge seekers. At UC Berkeley, this course (L&S 22) satisfies the Philosophy and Values, Physical Science, or Social and Behavioral Sciences breadth requirements in the College of Letters & Science.

Course material was developed by Saul Perlmutter, John Campbell, and Robert MacCoun (along with help from several others) and is expected to appear in a forthcoming Sense, Sensibility, and Science book.