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Course Descriptions

Explore FWIS Course Topics from Pop Music to Sports

Course Schedule


Spring 2020 Courses


Science, Technology, & Society

FWIS 104, MacDonnell, Kevin, MWF 10:00-10:50

This FWIS course will explore the relationship between science, technology, and society. In response to contemporary attitudes that have shielded science and technology from critical interrogation, this class will study how sociopolitical, cultural, and material conditions both influence and are influenced by scientific and technological change. What role has science and technology played in producing modern society? What role will it play in the future? What is technoscience? How has culture influenced the development of science and technology? Are science and technology ever free from the political? In this course we will ask these and other questions with the aid of key insights from sociology, anthropology, literary studies, economics, history of science, political theory, and philosophy. Collectively, students will cultivate an interdisciplinary approach to complex questions relating to knowledge production, technical innovation, and social values.

Art and Environment

FWIS 109, Lina Dib, Section 1: TTh 1:00-2:15 / Section 2: TTh 2:30-3:45

This course delves into questions of environment, ecology and sustainability through the lens of contemporary art. From earthworks, to performance, to land art, activist art, and community-based practices, participants engage critically and creatively with various contemporary practices. We discuss works that put art and environment into conversation by using landscapes as raw material and by highlighting our relationship to local and global ecological systems. Throughout the course, we explore how art provides ways to rescript interactions with our environment. Students work to design and create their own projects. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of much of the work we view, discuss, and propose, we read across a wide range of disciplines, including media studies, design, urban planning, humanities, art and anthropology. The course involves excursions to landfills, museums, gardens and other visits led by experts. This course is eligible for credit toward the Environmental Studies minor.  

Fiction, History, Tejas

FWIS 112, Elizabeth Cummins Munoz, Section 1: TTh 9:25-10:40 / Section 2: TTh 10:50-12:05

“Remember the Alamo!” “Come and Take It!” These familiar battle cries have had a long life in Texas popular culture, even as their meaning shifts across time and communities. In Fiction, History, Tejas, students will explore the historical memory of the region as it appears in fiction both on the page and on the screen, with a particular focus on Latino writers and filmmakers. In our examination of the battle for authority in foundational stories about Texas independence, we will consider the limits and possibilities of historical fiction. Through assigned readings, writing, and discussion, students will develop critical thinking skills and learn to approach writing as a tool for exploring ideas and refining understanding, as well as communicating.

Race, Policy, & Racial Change

FWIS 113, Melissa Marschall, TTh 10:50-12:05

This course provides an introduction to race and public policy in the United States. We will examine the different ways in which race and political representation have been conceptualized and studied in America and how has race been intertwined with public policy development in the 20th century. The course will also explore how American political institutions have shaped outcomes for different racial groups, focusing on several contemporary public policy areas—e.g., education, housing, policing and incarceration, and voting rights. Finally, the last section of the course will focus on issues of mobilization and change: What political victories have racial minorities achieved, where and in what ways does public policy in America now provide equal protections and equality of opportunity to racial minorities? How have political mobilization and participation contributed to racial change in the United States?

Fiction and Empathy

FWIS 120, Burke Nixon, Section 1: MWF 1:00-1:50

Is there a link between reading literary fiction and empathizing with others? A much-discussed 2013 article in Science seemed to answer this question in the affirmative, but writers and readers have been making (and challenging) similar claims for almost as long as the novel has existed. In this course, we’ll explore and debate the question ourselves. What does empathy actually mean? What’s the difference between empathy and compassion? Can a work of fiction actually change the way we perceive others in real life? We’ll read and write about the work of fiction writers who are often praised for their ability to inhabit the consciousness of their characters, as well as contemporary authors who attempt to do the same thing in different ways. We’ll also examine and debate what literary critics and authors themselves have claimed on this topic, focusing in particular on the elements of fiction and how those elements might provoke empathy.

Time Travel Narratives

FWIS 121, Laura Richardson, TTh 4:00-5:15

From an aesthetic perspective, time travel has existed as long as there have been stories: narrative is time tourism. Narrative introduces alien temporalities, transporting listeners and readers into different temporal landscapes. Throughout the twentieth century, science and science fiction participated in a shared economy of inspiration, each stirring the other to new creative potential. This course investigates the historical, aesthetic, and scientific connections between the authorial and scientific co-creation of time travel. Our central quests will be to define the relationship between scientific and narrative jumps through time, as well as forge, as a class, a general understanding of how our culture represents time travel, given not just technological limitations, but also the historico-cultural limiting factors of gender, race, politics, and language.

Star Wars & Writing Culture

FWIS 123, David Messmer, MWF 11:00-11:50

From Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech to Hilary Clinton’s declaration at the end of a recent primary debate, “May the Force Be with You,” the Star Wars franchise has entered our national vocabulary in ways that no one could have imagined upon its release in 1977. This course will unpack the stakes of that discourse through a variety of disciplinary approaches. Why did the Star Wars franchise and its hopeful message emerge out of a popular culture rife with cynicism, and why does it continue to resonate today? What does the franchise’s popularity reveal about our nation’s relationship to issues of imperialism, race, gender, and spirituality? Are these films merely escapist fun, reaffirming a nostalgic vision of America, or are they a vehicle for cultural and social critique? Writing assignments in the class will challenge students to address these questions, while engaging the ever-expanding scholarly discourse surrounding the films.

Inner Dimensions

FWIS 128, Katerina Belik, TTh 2:30-3:45

How much does what we say characterize us? The course explores personality traits and types of intelligence through their linguistic manifestation. Students will be introduced to personality theory, multiple intelligence theory, and the lexical hypothesis which states that the most significant personality characteristics are reflected in person’s language. We will attempt to identify what personality traits are vividly imprinted in one’s language, and whether language characteristics can be used as a predictor for professional success. For our study, we will use academic articles, fiction and documentary stories as well as personal observations. Students will be offered to take personality tests as well as the multiple intelligences test to learn more about themselves and others. We will discuss validity of the theories and accuracy of the personality tests.

Writing Everyday Life

FWIS 130, Lina Dib, TTh 10:50-12:05

This course is dedicated to the poetics of everyday life. It introduces its participants to cultural and historical writing that draws from the real world and from the forms and colors of the ordinary. First, we will experiment with some non-fiction writing styles, from journalistic, to poetic, to documentary and ethnographic. Then, shifting the focus from writing styles to writing topics, the course will delve into how we experience landscapes, bodies, and objects in prosaic ways. We will develop reading, research, writing, and presentation skills through creative assignments and workshops. Engaging in fieldwork around Houston, we will practice observational and literary tactics, such as experimenting with rhythm and repetition, shifting scales from the micro to the macro, and making the strange familiar or the familiar strange. In short, we will explore, evaluate, and communicate the everyday. This course is eligible for credit toward the major in Anthropology.  

Business Environment

FWIS 134, Larry Hampton, TTh 9:25-10:40

The business environment presents opportunities to explore the ways in which culture, society, law, and creativity impact organizations. How do these forces influence business decisions? How do law and policy impact business behavior? How do goals shape a strategy? How do cultural differences affect business interaction? In this course, we will begin to answer these questions by examining case studies, academic articles, and texts drawn from diverse business sources. We will investigate ways to think about business issues, evaluate their context, explain and describe them, analyze them, and present our findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Through a focused examination of specific scenarios and issues affecting organizations, students can envision the future roles they may play in business. The course content will provide students with a grounding in fundamental business principles as well as the methods by which they can communicate about them.

Pop Music & American Culture

FWIS 137, Andrew Klein, MW 4:00-5:15

This course will explore the world of popular American music by looking at a number of recent albums and songs as well as many critical and journalistic writings about music. Ranging from Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love to Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, and from a novelistic portrayal of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality to a memoir of the Riot Grrrl movement, these texts will also allow us to think critically not only about music itself, but about what other issues (race, gender, sexuality, class, taste, etc.) we talk about when we talk about music. Assignments will include album reviews, song analyses, genre/region presentations, and personal essays.

Mindfulness and Medicine

FWIS 138, Jade Hagan, MW 2:00-3:15

What is mindfulness and how can it make you a better writer? What are the health benefits of mindfulness? How might mindfulness offer a new perspective on old medical issues? This course explores various ways of answering these questions through an introduction to the study and practice of mindfulness and the medical humanities, combined with writing instruction. Mindfulness is a way of purposefully attending to your experience of the present moment without judgment. As the research on mindfulness grows, scientists are discovering the ways that mindfulness can positively impact our lives and work by encouraging an openness to experience and growth mindset that can help us handle life’s daily challenges. For our purposes, those challenges will primarily consist of various writing assignments, culminating in a research paper on the medical applications of mindfulness. Students will also explore mindfulness through a diverse range of scholarly and literary texts, films, and excursions.

Literature and Environment

FWIS 141, Jade Hagan, MWF 1:00-1:50

This course provides an introduction to the increasingly relevant field of environmental literature and ecocriticism. We will examine literature, criticism, and film from the late eighteenth century to the present with an eye to determining how these texts represent the relationship between humans and their physical environments. Our textual analyses will also allow us to explore a number of broader questions, such as: how does language shape our perception of our physical environment? How has the history of the physical environment shaped the history of literature and the arts? What is the role of literature in raising awareness of environmental issues? How do environmental issues intersect with social issues related to class, gender, race, and ability? Students in this course will engage these and other student-generated questions through a variety of formal and informal writing assignments, interdisciplinary research, and a multisensory “practicum” in environmental perception and reflection.

The Dirty Thirties

FWIS 148, Laura Richardson, TTh 2:30-3:45

The American 1930s witnessed a natural and manmade topographical dynamism unmatched by any other modern U.S. decade. Due to the stock market crash of 1929 and prolonged, weather-related catastrophes that devastated the agricultural capabilities of the Midwest, the period from 1929-1941 was not only marked by widespread unemployment and hunger, but also massive migration, captured most famously in literature by the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Amid these rapid alterations of American landscape and demographics, FDR’s Works Progress Administration changed the constructed face of the country—the New Deals’ pervasive social welfare manifested in massive infrastructure projects and architectural feats, much of which is still in use today. In addition to grand spatial transformations, the 1930s also saw widespread aesthetic differences from the preceding decades. Modernist artistic expression pivoted to find inspiration in the average, struggling American, ushering in an age of social realism that infused aesthetics with sociopolitical critique. Simultaneously, New Deal programs supported thousands of painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, and musicians with millions in federal aid. What are the connections between the rapidly remolding landscape of a once-prosperous America and the coevolution of modernist form, style, and content? This course will encourage students to respond to this question with an analytical eye for how space and place manifest in 1930s aesthetics.

Modern Castaways

FWIS 151, Mark Celeste, MWF 1:00-1:50

You need not be stuck on an island to be considered a “castaway.” This course will challenge us to think about isolation, alienation, and survival in a global age. What happens to those left behind, those cast out, and those seemingly out of place? How (if at all) do they assimilate and survive in a new world? Where do these “modern castaways” stand with respect to particular national, racial, social, and historical identities? Our readings will move us through a range of literary forms, critical conversations, and historical moments, asking us to consider how issues of nationality, race, gender, and class change across time and space. We will grapple with topics such as colonialism, immigration, feminist history, the anthropocene, and the refugee crisis – topics that will invite us to reflect on the moral and political dimensions of “castaway” figures.

The Science of Supplements

FWIS 152, Mary Purugganan, TTh 10:50-12:05

This course examines the science behind some of the most highly promoted nutritional supplements for preventing or treating disease. The supplement industry has recently grown to $33 billion per year, and more than half of Americans now take supplements regularly. Because nutritional supplements are not regulated like pharmaceuticals, consumers have begun to question the safety, purity, and efficacy of these products. Students will examine the challenges in regulating supplements, the role of supplements as alternative or complementary medicine, the biology of common but complex diseases such as cancer and depression, and the molecular mechanisms of supplements’ effects on the human body. Through writing assignments and oral presentations, students will explore this rapidly growing but poorly regulated approach to improving health.

Investigating Stolen Books

FWIS 153, Mallory Pladus, MWF 1:00-1:50

When independent booksellers report on the authors and titles that tend to walk off their shelves, they mention the same names time and again: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and anything Joan Didion wrote. The list goes on to include contemporary writers, like Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers, and those with a decidedly global fanbase, such as Roberto Bolaño and Haruki Murakami. This course assembles texts by these and other writers into an archive of the most stolen books. What does “stolen” status reveal about specific historical and aesthetic categories (like “postmodern,” “hipster,” or “beat”); about the relationship between high and lowbrow art forms; and about our relationship to literature, our self-identification with texts and how we come by them? This course is designed to develop students’ academic writing skill-sets, to build students’ critical reading abilities, and to enhance students’ knowledge of contemporary literature and (without practice) of literary larceny itself.

Growing Pains

FWIS 155, Burke Nixon, Section 1: MWF 2:00-2:50 / Section 2: MWF 3:00-3:50

This FWIS will examine coming-of-age tales in a variety of literary and film genres. We’ll read a 19th century novel from England, a 20th century graphic novel from Iran, and a 21st century novel from Italy. We’ll watch autobiographical coming-of-age films written and directed by filmmakers from France, Japan, and India, as well as films from the U.S., including a trio of coming-of-age movies shot here in Houston. In analyzing these texts and our own experiences, we’ll gain insight into the sometimes painful search for identity that constitutes adolescence, as well as larger forces like gender, social class, race, and politics. We’ll write in a variety of genres, from film reviews and personal essays to literary analysis essays and research papers that explore a text through a theoretical lens, all with an ultimate goal of growing as academic readers, writers, and critical thinkers.

Speech and Comm in Homer

FWIS 156, Hilary Mackie, TTh 2:30-3:45

This course introduces students to oral tradition, oral performance, oral poetics, and their relevance to Homer. First, we will consider the Iliad and Odyssey themselves as oral traditional poetic performances, emphasizing oral performance as a mode of communication. Second, we will read both poems (in English translation) closely, focusing on the speeches, songs, and stories that the characters perform. We will consider what those performances suggest about the capacity of speech (depending on what it communicates to whom, and how) to function constructively or destructively in human societies. And we will consider what they suggest about the capacity of speech to facilitate or hinder human understanding of self and other. The assignments—which include informal writing exercises, formal academic essays, and focused class discussions—will provide many opportunities for students to apply the understanding of self, other, speech, communication, and society that they acquire from Homer to their own efforts.

Global English

FWIS 160, Vasudha Bharadwaj, MWF 10:00-10:50

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, and there are twice as many people second language speakers as there are native users. It has been called a “world language,” a “global language,” and an “international language” and its widespread use is the result of a varied set of historical circumstances. What are the different forms of English? How does the use of English in a non-native setting affect how other languages are perceived? How do non-native / bilingual speakers of the language negotiate between multiple cultural histories and traditions? In this course, students will consider how sociocultural, political, and economic factors have historically influenced decisions about education and language use, particularly regarding English. In doing so, they will practice different forms of academic communication including discussion, writing, and presentation, and refine skills fundamental to their success as critical thinkers, readers, and writers.

Detectives & Detections

FWIS 161, Scott Pett, MWF 9:00-9:50

According to Sherlock Holmes, it is not what we do in this world that matters to most people, but what we can make them believe we have done. This course examines cultural representations of the struggle between those wanting to uncover “truth” and those wanting to evade detection. As our readings will reveal, questions of detection are crucial to constructing morally divergent registers of identity: as black or white, crazy or sane, friend or foe, "good guy" or bad. As we read, we will continually ask: What can detections teach us about the boundaries of national belonging? Along the way, we will position ourselves as detectives of a sort by pursuing hunches, making inferences, collecting evidence, and drawing conclusions that deepen our understanding of the text as a whole.

Critical Thinking in Democracy

FWIS 162, John Hutchinson & Paula Hutchinson, TTh 1:00-2:15

We will examine the vital importance and significant challenges of thinking critically as a citizen in a democracy. Critical thinking runs counter to an inherent tendency towards confirmation bias in decision making. This conflict is often exploited by governmental leaders and media to control specific outcomes which may not be in the best interests of individual citizens or the citizenry collectively. Students in this class will learn to develop their critical thinking and analytical skills in the context of the function of a democratic society. They will learn to analyze media and political rhetoric to recognize and work past propaganda, partisanship, hypocrisy, and nationalism.

Science Fiction and Shakespeare

FWIS 165, Lindsay Sherrier, TTh 4:00-5:15

William Shakespeare is scattered throughout the science fiction genre, from episodes of Star Trek to the 1956 film Forbidden Planet to Stan Lee’s graphic novels. There is even a translation of Hamlet into Klingon! Compelled by this surprising fascination, this course explores why Shakespeare and his works are so prolific in science fiction. How does science fiction capture and expand Shakespeare’s exploration of what it means to be human? In what ways does science fiction use Shakespeare’s works to address scientific and technological advancements, such as robotics, genetic engineering, and time travel? And, finally, what is it about Shakespeare’s works that make them so adaptable to different time periods and geographical locations (both real and imagined)?

Building Design Problems

FWIS 168, TTh 1:00-2:15

This course is not for the faint of heart or the timid. We will read and analyze case studies, project documents and other source materials on buildings that have experienced serious design problems and ended up in the news and in court. Some major buildings lose their high-rise windows inexplicably, others experience catastrophic structural failures, while others are saved from disaster through brilliant professional skill and sheer luck. You will write about what went right and wrong, why the situation happened, who caused the problem, and who should have acted differently. We will conduct a mock trial with students serving as the designers, constructors, clients and others involved, as well as their attorneys. Active participation in class is essential and a part of your grade. The broad goals of the course are to improve and refine your ability to think and write critically and powerfully, and to present a convincing argument on the written page and in person.

Postcolonial Voices

FWIS 174, Mark Celeste, MWF 3:00-3:50

For more than 400 years the British Empire transformed the world through diplomacy and force, through culture and violence. Even today, after its official demise, we still experience its effects. This course will teach us to read “against the grain” of empire, to listen for the voices and histories that push back against forms of imperial power. We will join the critical conversations of postcolonialism, the political and cultural methodology that rereads and rewrites the lives and afterlives of those under empire. We will explore literary, historical, and political texts that respond to and challenge British—and, more broadly, Western—culture and modernity. Along the way, we will make connections to the present day: how do we speak truth to the power of modern empires? As we practice our techniques for postcolonial critique, we will also sharpen our skills for effective writing, academic research, and engaging communication.

Deconstructing Houston Rodeo

FWIS 181, Alan Steinberg, MWF 9:00-9:50

For over 85 years the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has played a role in the cultural and economic development of the City of Houston. What started in 1932 as a regional showcase for the agriculture and livestock in the area is now a tourist destination event that attracts over 2.5 million people, engages over 34,000 volunteers, commits over $27,000,000 annually to education initiatives, and has an estimated annual economic impact on the city of about half a billion dollars. However, the event faces criticism regarding its choices in performances, protests from animal rights groups, and a lack of diversity in its leadership. This course will take an interdisciplinary approach to explore how one of the largest non-profits in the Houston area got to where it is today and utilize experiential learning opportunities to provide a means for students to investigate the success and criticism that have faced the organization.

Baseball and American Identity

FWIS 184, Clint Wilson, MWF 11:00-11:50

Like America itself, baseball has long been the subject of eulogies and postmortems. At a time of renewed policing regarding who or what “counts” as American, baseball provides an opportunity to reflect on not only the game of baseball, but also what baseball teaches us about writing's ability to build community. This FWIS will seek to cultivate its own community through shared readings, discussions, film screenings, and field trips. We will ask how the act of writing—even and perhaps especially "sports writing"—shapes notions of nationhood, gender and sexuality, and critical approaches to race and class. In addition to exploring texts across multiple genres and media forms, students will follow a single professional baseball organization throughout the semester, exploring both its history and its ongoing presence in public discourse. Finally, we will survey debates surrounding new technology, economic models, and performance-enhancing drugs as topics for original, research-based writing.

Contemporary American Poetry

FWIS 185, Andrew Klein, MW 2:00-3:15

This course will explore the world of contemporary American poetry by looking at some of the most exciting collections to come out in the past few years.  Ranging from the intimate lyrics of Peter Campion’s El Dorado to the minimalist verse of Christina Davis’ An Ethic to the historical polyphony of Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Darktown Follies, these collections have been chosen: 1) to introduce students to some varieties of American poetry in their literary and historical contexts; 2) to increase each student’s ability to understand and analyze how given poems “work”; 3) to develop each student’s ability to put the results of their engagements with poetry into clear, effective prose; and 4) to build a framework for reading and understanding other types of poetry.  Perhaps more significantly, though, these books will also allow us to ask a larger questions: what, if any role, can poetry play in contemporary life?

Eng Design & Communication

FWIS 188, Matthew Wettergreen, Deirdre Hunter, TTh 10:50-12:05

First-year students learn the engineering design process and use it to solve meaningful problems drawn from clients such as local hospitals and medical facilities, other local and international companies and organizations, and the Rice University community. Students work collaboratively on a team to design an engineering solution to meet the client’s need, and they use the resources of the OEDK to construct innovative solutions. Documentation is an essential element in the engineering design process.  Engineers must be able to communicate the need for a novel design, numerical design objectives, ideas for solutions, and the success or failure of a project.  During the engineering design process, students interact and communicate with teammates, the project client, instructors, and potential users. This course covers the same technical content as ENGI 120, Introduction to Engineering Design.  This course places additional emphasis on an individual’s development of the written and oral technical communication skills necessary for professional practice, especially results-oriented technical memos and oral presentations.

Migrant Experiences

FWIS 191, Brittany Henry, Section 1: TTh 1:00-2:15 / Section 2: TTh 2:30-3:45

This course focuses on the human experience of global migration and its representation in literature. As we explore the ethical and social justice implications of representations of migration and displacement in contemporary fiction, we will consider the following questions: How does literature by and about migrants convey the lived experience of displacement at the level of the social, the spiritual, the economic, the communal, and the family? How do race, class, gender, and religious identities shape migrants’ experiences in unfamiliar cultures? How do the narratives we examine attest to the creative strategies migrants employ to adapt, survive, and forge community in new (and often unwelcoming) places? How do narratives of displacement challenge our understanding of community, home, and hospitality? And finally, what role might storytelling, literature, and artistic expression play in the cultivation of a just and humane response to mass displacement in the age of globalization?

Art and War

FWIS 195, Jane Celeste, TTh 9:25-10:40

The way we visually represent combat plays a vital and powerful role in our understanding of geopolitical events, human emotion, and the consequences of war. This course examines the relationship between violent conflict and images from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein and the American to Syrian Civil Wars. Beginning with the French Revolution and moving forward through such conflicts as the World Wars, Vietnam, and the events around 9/11, we will discuss mediums ranging from the war memorial and propaganda poster to painting and photojournalism. As we do so, we will explore the meanings behind these iconographic systems and learn how to analyze visual representations. We will examine the complexities of modern images of war through writing assignments, presentations, discussions, workshops, and creative assignments. By the end of the semester, you will improve not only your written and oral communication skills, but your visual communication abilities as well.

Consciousness and Value

FWIS 196, Andrew Lee, TTh 9:25-10:40

This course will examine philosophical topics relating consciousness and value. Some of the questions we will examine include: Why is pain is bad and pleasure good? Could there be value in a world without any conscious beings? Is consciousness itself valuable? Could non-conscious entities, such as plants or computer programs, have moral status? What makes death bad? Some of the philosophical concepts we will examine include concepts of phenomenal consciousness, intrinsic value vs. instrumental value, moral status, and well-being. The course will serve as an introduction to both the philosophy of mind and value theory. Readings will be centered on contemporary articles in analytic philosophy.

Science or Pseudoscience?

FWIS 197, Michael Cone, MWF 4-4:50

Is anthropogenic climate change real? Do vaccines cause autism? Are genetically modified crops safe? What is homeopathy? Questions like these illustrate the difficulty that so often arises when dealing with the plethora of complicated topics and issues that are pervasive in modern culture. We can’t be experts in every field, so how do we tell good science from pseudoscience? This course aims to address this issue by focusing on the application of scientific skepticism and critical thinking to questions like those mentioned above, and many others. We will discuss the inherent fallibility of human perception and memory, as well as the cognitive biases and logical fallacies that we so often fall victim to. We will apply these concepts to various examples of pseudoscience. The topics will range from the absurd (astrology, flat earth theory), to more sophisticated and controversial examples that have significant societal impact (climate change denial, alternative medicine).