New honors science course at Penn State Beaver to debunk scientific myths

MONACA, Pa. — You are an honors student fascinated by science, but the last time Penn State Beaver offered an honors science course was … well, let’s just say it’s been a while.

This spring, you have an option — SC 200 Honors, Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy.

It’s a 3-credit course team taught by Associate Professor Cassandra Miller-Butterworth and Instructor Stephanie Cabarcas-Petroski, and it’s full of controversy.

That’s because the course will focus on the science that regularly makes the news — cloning, stem cell therapy, climate change — and determine just how accurately each of those issues has been portrayed.

“We have all of these things around us that we believe are rooted in science,” Miller-Butterworth said, “but the question is — how rooted in science?”

The topic is particularly appealing to Miller-Butterworth because she remembers an incident in her native South Africa where the veracity of science ended up impacting access to health care.

A prominent American scientist unrelentingly denied that HIV causes AIDS, even as loads of scientific evidence piled up around him. It might have caused nothing more than disdain in the scientific community, but he had the ear of South Africa’s president at the time, Thabo Mbeki. And Mbeki had a stranglehold on the medical community. The upshot was a lack of access to life-extending measures.

“South Africa lost years of time when they could have been implementing antiretrovirals and education,” Miller-Butterworth said. “Instead they were told to eat garlic and bath with green soap.”

In other words: bad science.

The SC 200 class is designed to combat this kind of bad science and teach students more about how good science affects lives, shapes world views, and impacts the future.

“As scientists and educators, we want the nonscientific community to understand the importance of scientific research and communicate current and important findings,” Cabarcas-Petroski said. “But, especially as scientists, we understand the importance of communicating these findings correctly. Many times, the controversy surrounding scientific findings is rooted in misreporting of scientific findings, placing scientific conclusions in an incorrect context, and media outlets that tend to sensationalize the science.”

The course is open to all honors students, regardless of background or scientific knowledge.