POL S 334 A: Topics in American Politics

Meeting Time: 
TTh 3:30pm - 5:20pm
MGH 389
Mark Smith
Mark Alan Smith

Syllabus Description:

Many commentators have proclaimed that we are living in an era of “post-truth,” defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  The forces leading to this phenomenon have been building in the U.S. and around the world over the last few decades.  An academic movement often called “postmodernism” has asserted that there are no overarching truths, just local truths relative to each person or community.  Meanwhile, the public has lost confidence in the institutions that used to serve as arbiters of truth, including the media, business, government, and organized religion.  The information environment now includes both fake news and false allegations of fake news.  The result is a profound challenge:  How can anyone know what’s true?  The answer for many people today is whatever feels true from within the filter bubble of their social media and personal networks.

This course will focus on the difficulties of separating fact from fiction in the contemporary world.  Recognizing the need to examine competing perspectives on important topics, the syllabus includes authors writing from a range of political and ideological orientations (left, right, centrist, libertarian, etc.).  We will learn the tools of critical and scientific thinking and then apply them to politics and other areas of controversy.  We will gain insights into the political and cognitive biases that guide how people interpret information, form beliefs, and resist changing their minds.  In a climate of political polarization, it has become more difficult to gain a shared understanding not just of the values in dispute but also the relevant facts.  By understanding the errors in intuition, perception, and memory that can lead people astray and create a tribal mentality, students will strengthen their ability to recognize their own biases and evaluate claims through reason and evidence.  Along the way, we will investigate why so many Americans embrace conspiracy theories, reject ideas with a strong scientific consensus, and accept ideas lacking scientific support.  We will also examine the production and consumption of false information and how a person can navigate the Wild West of claims and counterclaims easily accessible online. 


Students should expect a higher-than-average workload in keeping up with the weekly readings, videos, and podcasts. There will be roughly two hours of preparation outside of class required for every hour in class, or about twelve hours total per week.

Course requirements:

The grading is based on two in-class exams and a paper due during finals week.  The exams will cover the lectures plus the assigned readings and audio and video recordings.  Note that there is no traditional final exam.  The second exam will cover only material from the second half of the class.

Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:08pm