Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Public Health & Skepticism

This course was taught at California State University, Los Angeles during the spring 2013 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

The course will emphasize principles of skeptical inquiry, scientific reasoning, and scientific evidence to prepare students to critically analyze promotional claims made in the health marketplace for products, services, and practices. The course is designed to help students distinguish health-related fact from fiction and to spot health-related schemes, scams, superstitions, sensationalism, fads, fallacies, frauds, bunk, and bunco. Students will engage in critical thinking as they discuss how consumers can get good value for their health-related financial expenditures.

Learning Outcomes

Students should be able to:

  1. Explain why consumer vigilance is important in the health marketplace and summarize the various problems consumers face in the health marketplace.
  2. Describe the scope of deception in the health marketplace, its significance as a population health problem, why people are vulnerable to it, and how consumers can avoid it.
  3. Describe relevant consumer protection laws and agencies and their limitations and how consumers can utilize consumer protection resources.
  4. Apply strategies for consumers to distinguish fact from fiction regarding health products, services, and practices.
  5. Identify trustworthy and untrustworthy sources of consumer health information.
  6. Describe the strengths and limitations of government regulation and industry self-regulation of advertising for health products and services.
  7. Explain considerations for consumer decision-making regarding selection, utilization, and avoidance of health-related products, services, and practitioners.
  8. Distinguish responsible from irresponsible practices, products, and services related to mental health, dental health, major chronic diseases, nutrition, weight control, physical fitness, skin care, aging, care of the dying, care of the bereaved, personal image enhancement, and human sexuality.
  9. Analyze the “complementary and alternative medicine” movement in terms of its common themes, scientific examination of its theories, its impact on the health marketplace, and its impact on the health of the public.
  10. Identify priorities and pitfalls for economical medical self-care and caring for one’s family.

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Science of the Unexplained

This course was taught at Florida State College at Jacksonville during the spring 2013 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

An interdisciplinary study of selected topics in the biological and physical sciences and their impact upon man and society, with the course format including seminar, discussion and projects. Topics will vary…. genetics, tissue culture, space, Malthusian theory, light, sound, and mechanics. This course will provides students with a unique opportunity to examine many common pseudoscientific fallacies, learn how the human brain has evolved to encourage paranormal beliefs, and challenge the students to confront their own biases as they apply the scientific method to their own beliefs through in-class activities, experiments, and research projects.

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The Moral Arc of Science

This course was taught at Chapman University during the spring 2013 semester as an undergraduate course.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course addresses the evolutionary origins of morality, the developmental psychology of moral emotions, the historical course of moral development throughout the history of civilization, and the forces that have bent the arc of the moral universe toward truth, justice, freedom, and prosperity.

Students will look at how the arc of the moral universe bends toward truth, justice, freedom, and prosperity thanks to science the type of thinking that involves reason, rationality, empiricism, and skepticism. The Scientific Revolution led by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton was so world-changing that thinkers in other fields consciously aimed at revolutionizing the social, political, and economic worlds using the same methods of science. This led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, which in turn created the modern secular world of democracies, rights, justice, and liberty.

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Popular Archeology: Myths & Mysteries

This course was taught at the University of Texas at El Paso during the spring 2013 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course is designed to introduce students to a variety of critical thinking skills and to encourage them to practice those skills in the context of evaluating popular claims, especially extraordinary claims about topics relevant to anthropology and archeology. It is intended for students who are attracted to the interesting topics identified with anthropology in the popular media, but the level of instruction assumes no prior experience in anthropology. Students will learn about the methods used to interpret the physical traces of behavior, and how to distinguish scientific arguments from pseudoscience and non-science. Lectures, readings and class exercises will examine a variety of non-scientific explanations for past and present events, such as UFOs and ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, pyramid power, Atlantis, creationism and intelligent design, the Book of Mormon, dowsing, climate change denial, and psychic archeology.

Does Bigfoot roam the mountains of Oregon, and do his cousins hang out in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico? Are they shape-shifters, or do they use wormholes to travel the time-space continuum? Are extraterrestrial aliens like the ones who crashed in Roswell, New Mexico silvers or greens? Is there really an exotic blood-sucking animal called chupacabra killing livestock in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, or is it just a hairless raccoon? Should we believe Senator James Inhofe when he says that global climate change is a hoax? Is cell phone use harmful to your health? Do the Power Balance bracelets worn by Drew Brees and Kobe Bryant provide any real scientific advantage to athletes? Are modern humans related to ancient prehistoric peoples, or were we created in modern form? Is there reliable evidence to support the claims that psychics can reveal details about the past or make valid predictions about the future? Was planet earth really visited by ancient astronauts, and did they teach Egyptians how to build the pyramids? How can we know the answers to such questions? In fact, how can we know the truth about any claim? We are bombarded by information and claims all the time, and it is vitally important, now more than ever, that we be able to distinguish valid information and warranted conclusions from those that are not. How can we do this, especially when the claims involve events that occurred in the prehistoric past, were not witnessed by humans, or were not documented in written records?

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The Rhetoric of Extraordinary Claims

This course was taught at the California State University, Northridge during the fall 2010 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

One of the characteristics of contemporary American popular discourse is a marked increase in irrationalism. Belief in the paranormal, pseudoscience, and millenialism is perhaps more prevalent than at any other time in the history of Western Civilization. This course seeks to test these beliefs through the application of rhetorical analysis and critical thinking to discourse advancing extraordinary claims.

Learning Goals

Upon successful completion of this course, the students will be able to:

  1. Identify extraordinary claims in popular discourse.
  2. Identify the types of appeals, including forms of reasoning and evidence, used to advance extraordinary claims in popular discourse.
  3. Assess the strength of rhetoric advancing extraordinary claims.
  4. Prepare critical analyses and refutations of rhetoric advancing extraordinary claims.

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Health & Skepticism

This course was taught at California State University, Los Angeles during the spring 2012 semester

Excerpt from Syllabus

An introduction to skeptical inquiry as a foundation for drawing sound conclusions about popular claims made about health-related lifestyle practices, practitioners, facilities, products, services, and information portals. Healthy skepticism emphasizes careful consideration of scientific evidence and knowledge, and human susceptibility to deception and misperception.

Learning Goals

Upon successful completion of this course, the students will be able to:

  • Discuss the major challenges, considerations, and science-based resources for distinguishing fact from fiction regarding information about health products, services, and practices promoted in the health marketplace.
  • Apply key concepts of skeptical inquiry and science-based health care to plan and conduct meaningful descriptive studies concerning the promotion of health products, services, practices, and/or information in the health marketplace.
  • Explain why testimonials regarding the effectiveness of health products, services, and practices are not trustworthy even when they are appealing.
  • Evaluate quackery as a public health problem and efforts to combat quackery.

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Seminar: Science versus Pseudoscience

This course was taught at the University of Central Oklahoma during the fall 2011 semester

Excerpt from Syllabus

My goal for this course is to have each student leave with increased critical thinking and reasoning skills and the ability to apply those skills in his or her environment. Specifically, this course will teach students how to apply empirical, scientific modes of thinking in explaining the causes of various phenomena, from everyday human behavior to supposedly paranormal events. Students will become skilled in differentiating between scientific and pseudoscientific explanations of things such as psychic abilities, witchcraft, alien abduction, astrology, recovered memories, and the healing properties of various alternative medicines and techniques. In addition, students will come to understand the various ways in which we can be fooled, both by others and by ourselves, thanks to the way the human brain processes information.

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Science, Skepticism & Weird Behavior

This course was taught at the University of North Texas.

Excerpt from Syllabus

In this class students will utilize scientific critical thinking to examine the causes of various strange phenomena, including alleged paranormal events, magic, superstition, mystery illness, bogus therapies and pseudoscience. The main goal is to teach students how to think about weird things when they encounter them.

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students should be able to do:

  1. Describe 3 scientific paradigm shifts that have occurred within the last 1000 years and explain why they happened.
  2. Describe the importance of temporal and spatial contiguity in relation to perceiving weird things.
  3. Describe how the environment selects superstitious behavior in organisms. o Describe the role that uncertainty plays in why people believe weird things.
  4. Describe the “law of non-contradiction” and why it must be true.
  5. Describe differences and similarities between logical and physical possibilities.
  6. Describe at least two principles of critical thinking. o Define “knowledge” and how it relates to evidence & belief.
  7. Demonstrate commonsense skepticism by proportioning your belief to the evidence.
  8. Define the “criteria of adequacy” and use them evaluate competing theories.

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Evolution, Economics & the Brain

This course was taught at Claremont Graduate University during the spring 2012 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

Evolution, Economics, and the Brain is a doctoral-level Transdisciplinary Course designed to address large issues in which students employ knowledge and research protocols from many different disciplines to shed new light on specific problems. One of the books assigned—Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature—integrates evolution, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science to explain a single phenomenon: the decline of violence. It is a model work in transdisciplinary integration.

A transdisciplinary and integrative overview of evolutionary theory, evolutionary economics, and neuroscience (“Evolution, Economics, and the Brain”) that includes a brief history and science of evolutionary theory, along with the evolution-creationism controversy and how it evolved in the context of American history and culture. As well, the application of evolutionary theory will be considered in its integration into psychology, anthropology, ethics, and economics. The course also includes an introduction to behavioral neuroscience and will focus on teaching students how new findings in the brain sciences can inform their work in the social sciences and humanities. For example: How reward acquisition is affected by risk; Why humans are typically risk-averse and when they are not; Hyperbolic discounting of future rewards; How interpersonal trust is built and maintained; How “rational” vs. “irrational” decisions are made; The basis for cooperation and aggression; The reason people punish others; The role of hormones in decisions; The basis for social norms or ethics; The sense of justice; The basis for love and hate and how these effect decisions; War and peace; Human nature; The decline of violence; The humanitarian and rights movements; and more.

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Knowledge, Value and Rationality

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

The fundamental learning objectives of this course are threefold: 1) to empower students to be trustful of reason and to give them hope that they can make better communities and live better lives, 2) to demonstrate that there are better and worse ways of reasoning morally, and that the process one uses to make moral decisions can either contribute to, or alleviate, real life suffering and misery, 3) to teach student not to withhold moral judgment, but how to make better, more discerning moral judgments.

This class has the potential to disabuse students of ideologies and specious reasoning processes that bring students’ beliefs out of lawful alignment with reality. Specifically, it is meant to be both an antidote and a prophylactic to pedagogical constructivism, cultural relativism, radical epistemological subjectivism and faith-based belief systems. As such, this course should be viewed more as a moral and cognitive intervention than as a cannon of information that needs to be disseminated, assimilated and then assessed.

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