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AU Scholars | Distortions of Reality: The Lab

Spring 2015

Click here to watch a video about this course!

This investigation-based class will focus on illusions: that is, on conditions where our perception of the world does not match the best descriptions of reality. Illusions, so defined, can arise in nearly every sphere of human action (perception, memory, thinking patterns, social identifications, group interactions, history, biography, personal narrative, etc.). The class is therefore intended to attract people from any area of study who want to investigate a mismatch between perception and reality.

The project-based portion of the course will follow these three steps:

  1. Groups of 2, 3 or 4 students will find a topic related to the theme of the course. If your group has trouble finding a project, I have many suggestions that could be of use. We will work together to narrow your topic to a question that you can approach via empirical methods or systematic investigations.
  2. The group will carry out research on the topic in a methodologically reasonable way. You may need to learn new technical skills in order to conduct your study. I will help you figure out how to acquire the skills you need to know to do your project.
  3. The group will express what they have learned in a manner befitting the early 21st century—i.e., interactive graphics, video, datablog posts, etc.

In Fall 2012, I taught a seminar in which all projects consisted of videos. Here is the youtube channel for this course:

Take a look. (Some of the videos are really great!) A video like the ones on this youtube channel would be entirely appropriate for this course.

The discussion-based portion of the course will focus on the concept of Illusions and on technical skills that you will need to know.

Each class will start off with a half-hour (or so) discussion about an assigned reading/videos. Some of the assignments will concern illusions and ways of trying to understand reality. For instance, here is Michael Schermer’s TED talk about why people believe weird things:

Other discussions will concern technical skills that you need to know in order to carry out your study. For instance, for a lab-based course, you should have some familiarity with the basics of probability and statistics. Freedman, Pisani, and Purves wrote the best introductory book on that topic that I have ever encountered.

Here is the link: Statistics Book. We will spend about 1/3 of the class talking about readings from this text.

Why this research course?

You should take this course if you are interested in its underlying question and its underlying theme:

The underlying question of this course concerns how we build models of reality, and why we should believe those models. Our experience of reality is based on how we perceive and interpret the evidence presented to our senses. We see objects, colors, and scenes; we hear sounds and words; we taste, smell, and feel other qualities of the environment, yet sometimes reality is perceived, judged, or remembered inaccurately, and other times we are simply unaware of aspects of reality that are salient to other animals (for instance, honeybees can see ultraviolet light). To what extent are your perceptions and knowledge accurate representations of the world in which you live?

The underlying theme of the course follows my laboratory motto, “Knowledge of the technical makes creativity possible.” I borrowed this quotation from a handwritten sign posted over the darkroom door of a summer photography class I took after my first year in college. The motto means simply that before you can create something new and worthwhile, you often need to learn particular technical skills. In this course, you will learn or augment a set of technical skills that will help you to generate a creative project about your research topic.