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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