a Junior Seminar at Tembusu College

Also: a summer course at the University of Maine Honors College, May-June 2014

In this seminar, we examine the significance of various kinds of false appearances such as counterfeits, forgeries, hoaxes, and liars, together with attempts to expose them – sometimes with the help of sophisticated technologies.

Topics include art forgery, counterfeit consumer goods, and data fabrication in academic research, but also ‘positive fakes’ such as mock meat and the placebo effect. Students also get to explore their own case studies – in the recent past these have included screening methods for counterfeit drugs, fMRI lie detection, and the 'imposter syndrome'. 

Imitation Designer Bags

Imitation Designer Bags

Working with these diverse examples, seminar discussions revisit the same handful of questions: How do we draw the line between fake and real? Is this is black-and-white determination, or are there grey areas? What methods do we have for drawing the line, and what assumptions are these methods based on? How does human judgement come into the process of telling what’s fake from what’s genuine? How does the context of the fakery matter?

Fake prawns

Fake prawns

The stakes are not the same for any kind of fakery. In the case of fake designer bags, many consumers might accept their existence or don't think much of it. On the other hand, people do feel troubled by fake science because it undermines the quest for reliable knowledge - not to mention fake medicines and aircraft parts that threaten human health and safety. So we also look at the ethical judgments and the standards of good and bad applied to different kinds of fakes.

These ethical discussions connect back to the questions about 'what counts as fake' raised above. Is it ethical for vegetarians to eat realistic-looking, smelling and tasting fake meat? Is it ethical for doctors to prescribe placebos that do not contain any 'active' ingredients?

Download the course syllabus for the 2013 Tembusu College version of the course.

Download the course syllabus for the 2014 University of Maine Honors version.