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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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Skeptics Presents: B.Y.T.H. Busters
(The Secret Law of Attraction)

We are pleased to present the second in a series of videos that promote science and critical thinking through the use of humor, wit, and satire. In this video, B.Y.T.H. Busters: The Secret Law of Attraction, Adam Average and Jamie Imtheman put the “Law of Attraction” to the test. If you missed our first video, The Con Academy, watch it now!

Help Us Make More Videos

If you would like to show your support, please make a tax-deductible donation to the Skeptics Society by clicking the button below. With your support, we hope to produce these instructional, educational, and entertaining videos regularly throughout the year for free viewing and use by everyone everywhere to spread the message of the power of science and skepticism to make the world a saner, safer place.

CREDITS: Special thanks to David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, and Jim Robinson for their support in launching this new series of Skeptic videos.

Written and Produced by: Brian Keith Dalton, Michael Shermer, Pat Linse. Directed, lensed, and edited by: Brian Keith Dalton. Executive Producers: David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, Jim Robinson. Featuring: Brian Keith Dalton, Michael Shermer, Gingi Yee, Beyla Burke, Tom Vilot. Production Assistants: Eduard Pastor, Gediminas Schuppenhauer. Music by: Videoblocks.com and Final Cut Pro Production music. Additional Video by: Videoblocks.com. Shot on: Panasonic AF100, Gh2, and Gh3 cameras.

The Perks of Paranoia

Myths. Conspiracy Theories. Illusory Correlation. Do these things have an evolutionary basis in common? What type of thinking enables conspiracy theorists to correlate ideas that in truth have nothing to do with each other? In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer refers to these types of thinking as patternicity — finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

In this video project by Christopher Griffin, a senior Graphic Design student at the California College of the Arts (San Francisco), these pattern-seeking ideas are visually illustrated, as if diving head-first into the mind of a true believer.

This project was designed in Adobe After Effects and Maxon Cinema 4D, with assets built in Adobe Illustrator.

Skeptic Presents: The Con Academy

Volume 1: Advertising the Con Academy

This is the first video in a series featuring Michael Shermer and Brian Dalton (aka: Mr. Deity). The mission of these videos is to promote critical thinking through the use of humor, wit, and satire.

In this faux commercial for The Con Academy you’ll see how psychics count on the confirmation bias to convince people that their powers are real when, in fact, they are just remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. We also demonstrate how psychic “organizations” con people by taking their money for services that are not real.

—Michael Shermer

Help Us Make More Videos Like This

If you would like to support The Con Academy Videos, please make a tax-deductible donation to the Skeptics Society. With your support, we hope to produce these instructional, educational, and entertaining videos regularly throughout the year for free viewing and use by everyone everywhere to spread the message of the power of science and skepticism to make the world a saner, safer place.

CREDITS: Special thanks to David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, and Jim Robinson for their support in launching this new series of Skeptic videos.

Written and Produced by: Brian Keith Dalton, Pat Linse, Michael Shermer. Featuring: Michael Shermer, Brian Keith Dalton, John Rael, Jen Brown, Matt David, Eduard Pastor, Emery Emery, and Wendy Hughes. Production assistance: Eduard Pastor, Matt David, and John Rael. Shot, Edited, and Directed by: Brian Keith Dalton. Special thanks to: Russell Friedman and everyone at the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, CA. Music by: Videoblocks.com and Final Cut Production music. Shot on Panasonic AF100, Gh2, and Gh3 cameras. The Con Academy is not, in any way, affiliated with The Khan Academy.

Science, Theory & Paradigm Shifts 3

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Science Skepticism & Weird Behavior.”

SCIENCE, THEORY, AND PARADIGM SHIFTS

There are three lectures in this series, they are intended to educate students about the nature of science and the power of natural explanations. This is accomplished through the concept of the Paradigm Shift. The discussion begins with non-scientific views of nature and then follows the development of scientific views and how/why they changed over many hundreds of years. This post concerns the third lecture in the series.

Examples of paradigm shifts covered in the lecture series include:

  1. the shift from supernatural to nature interpretations of comets.
  2. the shift from astrology (Ptolemaic) to astronomy (Copernican revolution).
  3. the development of Copernican cosmology to a synthesis called Newtonian physics.
  4. the shift from Newtonian physics into Relativity Theory.

Lecture 3 – PARADIGM SHIFT 3

This lecture is a continuation of the previous lecture where the paradigm shift from Newtonian physics to the theory of relativity is discussed. The lecture ends with a discussion of the cosmic microwave background and what the various differences in temperature could mean.

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(16.5 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Lecture 1 – PARADIGM SHIFT 1
You can find the first lecture in the series here.

Lecture 2 – PARADIGM SHIFT 2
You can find the second lecture in the series here.

Science, Theory & Paradigm Shifts 2

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Science Skepticism & Weird Behavior.”

SCIENCE, THEORY, AND PARADIGM SHIFTS

There are three lectures in this series, they are intended to educate students about the nature of science and the power of natural explanations. This is accomplished through the concept of the Paradigm Shift. The discussion begins with non-scientific views of nature and then follows the development of scientific views and how/why they changed over many hundreds of years. This post concerns the second lecture in the series.

Examples of paradigm shifts covered in the lecture series include:

  1. the shift from supernatural to nature interpretations of comets.
  2. the shift from astrology (Ptolemaic) to astronomy (Copernican revolution).
  3. the development of Copernican cosmology to a synthesis called Newtonian physics.
  4. the shift from Newtonian physics into Relativity Theory.

Lecture 2 – PARADIGM SHIFT 2

This lecture introduces the concept of scientific paradigm shifts, the concept of empiricism, the concept of anomalies and the concept of synthesis. These concepts are discussed in the context of a paradigm shift called the Copernican and the Newtonian Revolutions.

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(20.6 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Lecture 1 – PARADIGM SHIFT 1
You can find the first lecture in the series here.

Lecture 3 – PARADIGM SHIFT 3
You can find the third lecture in the series here.

Science, Theory & Paradigm Shifts 1

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Science Skepticism & Weird Behavior.”

SCIENCE, THEORY, AND PARADIGM SHIFTS

There are three lectures in this series, they are intended to educate students about the nature of science and the power of natural explanations. This is accomplished through the concept of the Paradigm Shift. The discussion begins with non-scientific views of nature and then follows the development of scientific views and how/why they changed over many hundreds of years. This post concerns the first lecture in the series.

Examples of paradigm shifts covered in this lecture series include:

  1. the shift from supernatural to nature interpretations of comets.
  2. the shift from astrology (Ptolemaic) to astronomy (Copernican revolution).
  3. the development of Copernican cosmology to a synthesis called Newtonian physics.
  4. the shift from Newtonian physics into Relativity Theory.

Lecture 1 – PARADIGM SHIFT I

This lecture demonstrates the power of natural explanations over supernatural ones. The main topic is about the various ways that people throughout history have interpreted comets when they appeared in the sky. The lecture beings with a discussion about what we currently know about comets and then transitions into what ancients believed.

Two examples are given initially whereby major players in history misinterpreted the appearance of a famous comet (Halley’s comet) as a sign from god to fulfill their destiny. The first example was Genghis Cohn who began his invasion of the west after comet Halley appeared in the sky, the second was William the Conqueror who invaded England in 1066 after seeing comet Halley appear in the sky.

A third and final example is given whereby a person saw Halley’s comet in the sky but didn’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. This person was Sir Issac Newton and his interpretation of the comet was quite different because he assumed that the comet was natural. By asking simple, empirical, questions about the nature of the comet, Newton, with the help of Edmund Halley, was able to make a prediction the comet would one day return. Comet Halley did return just as Newton and Halley predicted thus proving that comets were not supernatural but are 100% natural just like the planets and other celestial bodies.

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(6.3 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Lecture 2 – PARADIGM SHIFT 2
You can find the second lecture in the series here.

Lecture 3 – PARADIGM SHIFT 3
You can find the third lecture in the series here.

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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Pseudoscience & the Paranormal

This book was required reading for “Why We Believe Weird Things: Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology” taught by Dr. Jeffrey Brookings and for “Parapsychology & the Occult” taught by Dr. Terence Hines.

Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (book cover)

Popular culture fills the mind with a steady diet of fantasy, from tales of UFO landings and alien abductions, haunted houses, and communication with the dead to claims of miraculous cures by spiritual healers and breakthrough treatments in ‘alternative’ medicine. The paranormal – and the pseudoscience that attempts to validate it – is so ubiquitous that many people lose sight of the distinction between the real and the imaginary, and some never learn to make the distinction in the first place. In this updated and expanded edition of “Pseudoscience and the Paranormal”, the most comprehensive and up-to-date work of its kind, psychologist and neuroscientist Terence Hines explores the question of evidence for the paranormal and delves beyond it to one that is even more puzzling: Why do people continue to believe in the reality of the supernatural despite overwhelming evidence that it does not exist? Devoting separate chapters to psychics, life after death, parapsychology, astrology, UFOs, faith healing, alternative medicine, and many other topics, Hines examines the empirical evidence supporting these popular paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. New to this edition are extended sections on psychoanalysis and pseudopsychologies, especially recovered memory therapy, satanic ritual abuse, and facilitated communication. Also included are new chapters on ‘alternative’ medicine and environmental pseudoscience. Critiquing the whole range of current paranormal claims, this carefully researched, thorough review of pseudoscience and the paranormal in contemporary life shows readers how to carefully evaluate such claims in terms of scientific evidence. This scholarly yet readable volume is an invaluable reference work for students and general readers alike. —Amazon

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Don’t Believe Everything You Think:
The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Science & Global Change Colloquium” taught by Thomas Holtz & John Merck, and (2) “Science & Pseudoscience in Psychology” taught by Jeffrey Brookings. This book was also used by Michael Dean with his high school students, you can find more information on his course here.

Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking (book cover)

This enlightening book discusses how to recognize faulty thinking and develop the necessary skills to become a more effective problem solver. Author Thomas Kida identifies “the six-pack of problems” that leads many of us unconsciously to accept false ideas: 1. We prefer stories to statistics. 2. We seek to confirm, not to question, our ideas. 3. We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events. 4. We sometimes misperceive the world around us. 5. We tend to oversimplify our thinking. 6. Our memories are often inaccurate.

Kida vividly illustrates these tendencies with numerous examples that demonstrate how easily we can be fooled into believing something that isn’t true. —Shop Skeptic

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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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Biology of Love

This is an overview of the biological influences on sex, love, and attraction. It includes research on the types of “love” and which brain areas and chemicals are involved in those subjective experiences. This presentation was created by Randy Ludwig for Dr. Michael Shermer’s course, “Evolution, Economics & the Brain” taught at Claremont Graduate University during the spring 2011 semester.

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(1.6 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Critical Thinking in Psychology:
Separating Sense from Nonsense

This book was required reading for the following course: “The Psychology of Scientific Thinking” taught by Monica Greco.

Critical Thinking in Psychology: Separating Sense from Nonsense (book cover)

Do your students have the tools to distinguish between the true science of human thought and behavior from pop psychology? John Ruscio’s book provides a tangible and compelling framework for making that distinction. Because we are inundated with “scientific” claims, the author does not merely differentiate science and pseudoscience, but goes further to teach the fundamentals of scientific reasoning on which students can base their evaluation of information. John Ruscio is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elizabethtown College, where he teaches courses in Research Methods and Statistics, and Research Methods in Social Psychology. His research interests include decision-making, classification and diagnosis and taxometric methods. —Amazon

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The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods
to Politics and Conspiracies

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek)” taught by Michael Shermer during the fall 2011 and (2) “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2012.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies -- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (book cover)

In this, his magnum opus, Dr. Michael Shermer presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. This book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward:

“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.”

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Dr. Shermer provides real-world examples of belief from all realms of life, and in the end he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality. —Shop Skeptic

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Michael Shermer gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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The Better Angels of our Nature:
Why Violence has Declined

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (book cover)

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

This groundbreaking book continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind’s inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society. —Amazon

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Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (book cover)

Beginning with a historical introduction, the text logically progresses by discussing adaptive problems humans face and ends with a chapter showing how the new field of evolutionary psychology encompasses all branches of psychology. Each chapter is alive with the subjects that most occupy our minds: sex, mating, getting along, getting ahead, friends, enemies, and social hierarchies. Why is child abuse 40 times more prevalent among step-families than biologically intact families? Why, according to one study, did 75% of men but 0% of women consent to have sex with a complete stranger? Buss explores these intriguing quandaries with his vision of psychology in the new millennium as a new science of the mind. Anyone with an interest in the biological facets of human psychology will find this a fascinating read. —GoodReads

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Legends, Lore, & Lies

This book was required reading for the following course: “Composition” taught by Mark Gifford during the fall 2011 semester.

Legends, Lore, and Lies: A Skeptic's Stance (book cover)

Legends, Lore, and Lies: A Skeptic’s Stance presents intriguing readings in five sections–urban legends, alternative medicine, the media’s role in public gullibility, psychics and the paranormal, and pseudo science–to demonstrate the importance of critical examination and the differences between an opinion or assertion and a supported claim. Legends, Lore, and Lies offers a wealth of features, including: (1) Explorations of the powers and limits of skepticism in understanding topics like urban legends and pseudoscience that often are awarded uncritical acceptance in our culture. (2) An excellent explanation of skepticism, along with a number of tools that every reader can use to become a critical consumer of information. (3) A handful of “believers” point-of-view readings, which students are encouraged to examine with the tools they acquire throughout the text. (4) A variety of pedagogical tools including brief author biographies and questions preceding and following the readings that function as writing and discussion prompts. (5) End-of-chapter synthesis questions that provide writing suggestions for longer research and inquiry papers. —Amazon

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Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal

This book was required reading for Martin Bridgstock’s course, “Skepticism, Science & the Paranormal” taught at Griffith University during the spring 2011 semester.

Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal (book cover)

Whether ghosts, astrology or ESP, up to 80 per cent of the population believes in one or more aspects of the paranormal. Such beliefs are entertaining, and it is tempting to think of them as harmless. However, there is mounting evidence that paranormal beliefs can be dangerous – cases of children dying because parents rejected orthodox medicine in favour of alternative remedies, and ‘psychics’ who trade on the grief of the bereaved for personal profit and gain. Expenditure on the paranormal runs into billions of dollars each year. In Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal Martin Bridgstock provides an integrated understanding of what an evidence-based approach to the paranormal – a skeptical approach – involves, and why it is necessary. Bridgstock does not set out to show that all paranormal claims are necessarily false, but he does suggest that we all need the analytical ability and critical thinking skills to seek and assess the evidence for paranormal claims. —Amazon

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Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims
of the Paranormal

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Weird Science” taught by John Donovan, (2) “The Psychology of Reasoning and Problem Solving” taught by Michael Cassens, and (3) “The Sociology of Belief” taught by Bryan Farha.

Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit (book cover)

“Smith’s work is a valuable contribution to the field. It will certainly be of interest to psychologists interested in the consequences of cognitive errors, and it is no doubt the best textbook on the market for a course on the psychology of paranormal belief. Although Smith explains paranormal thinking in terms of cognitive errors, his presentation of psychological issues is not technical; thus, this text would be especially useful in a freshman seminar, so popular now on American campuses, whose purpose is to help entering college students develop critical thinking skills. Students will either love or hate this text, but they will not be left unchanged by it. And that, after all, is what college is all about.”
—(PsycCRITIQUES, April 2010)

“I am astonished by the excellence of this book. Smith has produced a highly readable and very entertaining yet critical examination of virtually the entire gamut of paranormal claims, and he demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the field in doing so. While drawing extensively from psychology, physics, logical analysis and history, he always manages to keep things clear and straightforward, so that one is never lost in complexity. Moreover, the tone is light-hearted throughout, and never becomes pedantic or condescending. And the book offers much more than an evaluation of extraordinary claims. It provides a refined set of critical thinking tools that the reader will find invaluable in everyday life. I strongly recommend this book to everyone who values the pursuit of truth in all things. And I can only wish that those who know that they already have the truth would read it as well, for they need it the most.”
—James Alcock, Professor of Psychology, York University

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Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

This book was required reading for Jeffrey Brookings’ course, “Why We Believe Weird Things: Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology” taught at Wittenberg University during the fall 2010 semester.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (book cover)

They are tiny. They are tall. They are gray. They are green. They survey our world with enormous glowing eyes. To conduct their shocking experiments, they creep in at night to carry humans off to their spaceships. Yet there is no evidence that they exist at all. So how could anyone believe he or she was abducted by aliens? Or want to believe it?

To answer these questions, psychologist Susan Clancy interviewed and evaluated “abductees”–old and young, male and female, religious and agnostic. She listened closely to their stories–how they struggled to explain something strange in their remembered experience, how abduction seemed plausible, and how, having suspected abduction, they began to recollect it, aided by suggestion and hypnosis.

Clancy argues that abductees are sane and intelligent people who have unwittingly created vivid false memories from a toxic mix of nightmares, culturally available texts (abduction reports began only after stories of extraterrestrials appeared in films and on TV), and a powerful drive for meaning that science is unable to satisfy. For them, otherworldly terror can become a transforming, even inspiring experience. “Being abducted,” writes Clancy, “may be a baptism in the new religion of this millennium.” This book is not only a subtle exploration of the workings of memory, but a sensitive inquiry into the nature of belief. —Amazon

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Susan Clancy gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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