Skeptic » eSkeptic » March 7, 2012

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Opting Out of Overoptimism

In Michael Shermer’s March “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, he discusses what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “pervasive optimistic bias.” Optimism can slide dangerously into overoptimism when we willfully distort reality to extremes.



Hell Hath No Furry!

Episode 50 of MonsterTalk takes us to a small English village in the 1570s where a morning church service is interrupted by a horrific storm which heralds, perhaps, the appearance of Satan himself in the form of a huge black hound. Join us as we talk with David Waldron (author of Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay) as he helps us discover the facts behind this creepy tale—a tale which influences paranormal literature even today.

The Latest Episode of Mr. Deity: Mr. Deity and The Artist


About this week’s eSkeptic

Despite the best efforts of skeptics and teachers to advance scientific thinking, paranormal beliefs and pseudoscientific thinking continue to be commonplace. It is a common popular stereotype that knowledge of science and belief in the paranormal are like opposite ends of a teeter totter: with one tending to rise as the other falls. However, the landscape of belief is considerably more complicated than that. Science education may not be enough when we lack the ability to critically evaluate the evidence for claims. In this week’s eSkeptic, we present an article from Skeptic 9.3 that examined the relationship between science knowledge and paranormal beliefs.

The above illustration is copyright © 2002 Daniel Loxton.

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Science Education is
No Guarantee of Skepticism

by Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra,
and Rodnet J. Vogl

Many skeptics take a measured amount of pleasure in the kinds of tasks often set before them: evaluating blurry photographs, conducting laboratory experiments that reduce or eliminate trickery, critiquing flawed science and pseudoscience, and countering the claims of obvious charlatans. Of course, skeptics hope that their efforts aid in advancing science education.1 In spite of these efforts, survey data from several sources suggests that paranormal belief and pseudoscientific thinking continue to be commonplace.2

Skeptics often use these findings to reinforce arguments for more science education. Their argument is based upon the largely untested assumption that increased science knowledge reduces the number of paranormal beliefs an individual holds. However, this assumption may not be valid. Andrew Ede recently argued that science education may do little to raise the level of rational thinking and may, in fact, actually deter it!3 Recent debates about including creation science and/or eliminating evolution from high school biology curricula4 are a case in point indicating that many policy makers, members of the public, and a few educators are confused about how to critique and compare theories in order to separate facts from beliefs. Ede identified three reasons why this may be true:5

  1. Science classes, broadly defined, primarily teach technical skills rather than emphasizing critical thinking. Labs are conducted in which there is a “right answer” that the instructor knows, and it is up to the student to manipulate the project until the “right answer” is realized.
  2. Science classes typically review research findings without placing the research in the proper context. This can lead to incorrect assumptions or overgeneralizations.
  3. Science implicitly emphasizes its elite status over other points of view. Therefore, data and graphs are accepted uncritically because they are based on “scientific,” “clinical,” or “laboratory” studies. A lab coat guarantees an aura of expertise.

The overall result is that teaching scientific “facts” is emphasized, while individuals are not given the skills with which to critically evaluate the claims that are presented to them. People are placed in the position of accepting or rejecting claims based on what they are told to believe, rather than being able to critically evaluate the evidence.6

It is possible for a student to accumulate a fairly sizable science knowledge base without learning how to properly distinguish between reputable science and pseudoscience.

A quick inspection of introductory college textbooks supports Ede’s basic arguments. As an example, most introductory psychology texts are now in excess of 500 pages, yet fewer than 15 pages are typically spent on research issues. Little or no discussion is given to the importance of evidence or how scientific methods can be used to weigh evidence. Instead, the primary emphasis of many texts is to enumerate as many scientific findings as possible. Since it is reasonable to suspect that many instructors follow the basic format of the text that has been selected for class, it is likely that class lectures spend more time on specific research findings than on the more abstract topics of empiricism and skepticism. Hence, it is possible for a student to accumulate a fairly sizable science knowledge base without learning how to properly distinguish between reputable science and pseudoscience. Fortunately, there is recently a stronger push in introductory psychology texts to correct this oversight, most strikingly by Carole Wade and Carol Tavris,7 but it still remains the exception to the rule.

Assessing Science Knowledge and Pseudoscientific Beliefs

The primary goal of this paper is to examine the relationship between science knowledge and paranormal beliefs. We reasoned that if Ede’s argument is true, then a person’s scientific knowledge base should be unrelated to pseudoscientific beliefs. If, on the other hand, science leads to skepticism about pseudoscience, science knowledge and paranormal beliefs should be inversely related.

We tested this relationship using survey methodology at three small undergraduate universities (Christian Brothers University, Kansas Wesleyan University, and Winston-Salem State University). Across our samples, a total of 207 students were surveyed (66 at CBU, 70 at KWU, and 71 at WSSU). While the precise wording of the questions varied somewhat across institutions, each survey contained two essential units, administered in counterbalanced order.

In one unit, students were given one or more measures of science knowledge. Efforts were made to select scales from nationally recognized tests and to include questions from many areas of science, including biology, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. At CBU and WSSU, we used randomly sampled science questions from practice test banks for the Praxis Series National Teacher’s Exam. At KWU, we used items selected from the General Social Survey and a self-constructed measure of science values.8 At least two test versions were used at each university (WSSU used four separate test versions). Sample questions from the Praxis Series National Teacher’s Exam9 included:

  1. Which of the following is the dominant source of all or nearly all of the Earth’s energy? (A) Plants, (B) Animals, (C) Coal, (D) Oil, (E) The Sun
  2. Which of the following is true? (A) Energy may be converted from one form to another, (B) Energy may not be converted from one form to another, (C) The energy that a moving object possesses because of its motion is correctly known as potential energy, (D) Objects which possess energy because of their position are said to have kinetic energy, (E) Most scientists readily agree that energy from nuclear fission will be the chief source of energy by the year 2005.
  3. Which of the following situations might cause harm to an embryo? (A) The father is RH-positive; the mother, RH-negative, (B) The mother had German measles during the first trimester of pregnancy, (C) The father is RH-negative; the mother, RH-positive, (D) A and B only, (E) B and C only.
  4. Heavy infections of Trichinella in people may cause a disease called trichinosis; such a situation may best be described as which of the following? (A) Parasitism, (B) Mutualism, (C) Commercialism, (D) Benevolent, (E) Benign.
  5. Which of the following is the main difference between an organic and an inorganic compound? (A) The former is a living compound, while the latter is a nonliving compound, (B) There are many more of the latter than of the former, (C) The latter can be synthesized only by living organisms, (D) The latter can be synthesized only by nonliving organisms, (E) The former are those that contain carbon.
  6. On the periodic table the symbol Pb represents which of the following? (A) Iron, (B) Phosphorus, (C) Lead, (D) Plutonium, (E) Potassium.
  7. Which of the metric terms is closest to the measurement of a new piece of chalk? (A) Meter, (B) Liter, (C) Gram, (D) Decimeter, (E) Kilometer.
  8. Which of the following is a genetic disorder? (A) Down’s Syndrome, (B) Syphilis, (C) Malaria, (D) Leukemia, (E) Emphysema.
  9. A litmus test conducted on HCl would have which of the following results? (A) There is no effect on the color of the litmus paper, (B) The litmus paper disintegrates, (C) The litmus paper turns blue, (D) The litmus paper turns red, (E) The carbonation causes oxygen.
  10. When is the Earth closest to the Sun? (A) During the summer, (B) During the fall, (C) During the winter, (D) During the spring, (E) During the spring and summer.

For each sample, we correlated the participant’s test score with their average [paranormal] belief score. Across all three samples, there was no relationship between the level of science knowledge and skepticism regarding paranormal claims.

In a second unit, students were asked to rate how much they believed in various paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Again, efforts were made to select a cross-section of pseudoscientific claims. As skeptics, we found writing unbiased items to be a fairly difficult task, but the scale presented below, used in various forms at KWU, CBU, and WSSU, had acceptable reliability.10 Questions included:

Please rate how much you believe the following statements. Use the 7-point scale provided.

1=I do not believe in this at all; 2=I doubt very much that this is real; 3=I doubt that this is real; 4=I am unsure if this is real or not; 5=I believe this may be real; 6=I believe this is real; 7=I strongly believe this is real

  • A person’s personality can be easily predicted by their handwriting.
  • A person can use their mind to see the future or read other people’s thoughts.
  • A person’s astrological sign can predict a person’s personality and their future.
  • An ape-like mammal, sometimes called Bigfoot, roams the forests of America.
  • The body can be healed by placing magnets on to the skin near injured areas.
  • Healing can be promoted by placing a wax candle in your ear and lighting it.
  • A dinosaur, sometimes called the Loch Ness Monster, lives in a Scottish lake.
  • Sending chain letters can bring you good luck.
  • The government is hiding evidence of alien visitors at places such as Area 51.
  • Voodoo curses are real and have been known to kill people.
  • A broken mirror can bring you bad luck for many years.
  • Houses can be haunted by the spirits of people who have died in tragic ways.
  • Water can be accurately detected by people using “Y”-shaped tree branches.
  • Animals, such as cats and dogs, are sensitive to the presence of ghosts.
Science Test Scores

After scoring this portion of the survey, we used the total number of correct responses as data for each participant. While the scores did show a fair degree of variability, the averages were generally near the midpoint (CBU M=7.42, SD=2.27, out of a possible 15; KWU M=3.52, SD=.33, on a 1 to 5 scale; WSSU M=5.8, SD = 1.96, out of a possible 10).11

Paranormal / Pseudoscientific Beliefs

Unlike previous studies that have examined specific beliefs (e.g., UFOs, ESP), we were interested in these beliefs as a whole. We wanted a single representative score for each participant. We calculated the average belief score for each participant, with higher ratings indicating greater overall belief. When looking at these scores, remember that the rating ranged from “No belief” to “Total belief.” Looking across the three samples, the average belief rating was at or below the midpoint of the scale (CBU M=1.96, SD=.76, on a 7- point scale; KWU M=2.52, SD=.58, on a 5-point scale; WSSU M=2.9, SD=.91, on a 7-point scale), although there were individuals ranging from complete skeptics to complete believers.

Science Test Scores and Paranormal / Pseudoscientific Beliefs

We were interested in whether science test scores were correlated with paranormal beliefs. For each sample, we correlated the participant’s test score with their average belief score. Across all three samples, the correlation between test scores and beliefs was non-significant (CBU r(65)=-.136, p>.05; KWU r(69)=.107, p>.05; WSSU r(70)=.031, p>.05). In other words, there was no relationship between the level of science knowledge and skepticism regarding paranormal claims.

Wanted: A Good Baloney Detector!

These results are consistent with the notion that having a strong scientific knowledge base is not enough to insulate a person against irrational beliefs. Students who scored well on these tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students who scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.

These results need to be replicated using different materials and participants, although the diversity of measures and samples presented here suggests that there is some validity to our conclusions. While some might contend that our tests did not fully measure science knowledge, we counter this concern by emphasizing that our test questions were drawn from national tests designed to assess scientific reasoning. Thus, if there is a bias in our procedure, this bias is entrenched in science education. In our view, addressing the following questions can serve to clarify the relation between science education and pseudoscientific thinking.

First, do pseudoscientific beliefs vary by academic major? If science does discourage such beliefs, then one might suspect that science majors should view these beliefs more skeptically than perhaps religion or art majors. While there is evidence that scientists are more skeptical of claims than other individuals, it is unclear whether this skepticism is readily transferred to undergraduate science majors. After all, strange beliefs seem to be found among students of many disciplines. Unfortunately, our access to samples was too small to adequately test differences between majors.

Second, do pseudoscientific beliefs vary by education level? As students advance through college and gain experience and critical thinking skills, one might expect pseudoscientific beliefs to decrease. Although our data did not address this issue, other studies on skepticism suggest that an individual’s education level may not ward off such beliefs.12

Finally, can academic courses or programs that systematically raise or lower belief in pseudoscience be identified? It is possible that particular courses may encourage or discourage pseudoscientific beliefs. These courses need to be identified, and in the case of the latter, the key elements of these courses need to be disseminated to other science instructors. This is especially important when classroom information can support or contradict information from other sources, such as mass media. Our results suggest that we should not be overly optimistic, but more systematic investigations are needed.

Baloney Detection Kit (cover)

Baloney Detection Kit
by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse

This 16-page booklet is designed to hone your critical thinking skills. It includes suggestions on what questions to ask, what traps to avoid, specific examples of how the scientific method is used to test pseudoscience and paranormal claims, and a how-to guide for developing a class in critical thinking.
ORDER the 16-page booklet

We hope that our findings force fellow skeptics to rethink some of their assumptions. Science education, in its current form, seems to do little to offset pseudoscientific beliefs, and may in fact give students reason to accept science fiction as science fact. As skeptics and teachers, we need to do more than merely debunk extraordinary claims. While these demonstrations are informative and entertaining, they need to be coupled with thoughtful discussions of scientific reasoning. Carl Sagan suggested that good scientific reasoning demands the same type of skepticism that is needed to buy a good used car. In short, he said that students of science need a good baloney detector.13 We agree. The Skeptics Society’s recent publication of the Baloney Detection Kit that instructs teachers on how to teach just such a course is a step in the right direction.14 Provisional scientific truth must be separated clearly from myth. We urge skeptics to help students gain the necessary skills to make such distinctions both inside and outside the classroom.END

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: We would like to thank the undergraduate research assistants who helped collect and tabulate the data on this research project: Reggie Andrews, Paul Delph, Stefanie McGee, and Lakisha Pinson. Correspondence concerning this article should be directed to W. Richard Walker, Department of Social Sciences, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC 27110

  1. Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine; Shermer, M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W. H. Freeman.
  2. Gallup, G. H., Jr., and F. Newport. 1991. “Belief in Paranormal Phenomena Among Adult Americans.” Skeptical Inquirer, 15, 137–147; Jaroff, L. 1995. “Weird Science.” Time, 145 May 15, 20, 75–76; McCarthy, P. 1987. “Pseudoteachers.” Omni, July, 74; Sparks, G. G., C. L. Nelson, and R. G. Campbell. 1997. “The Relationship Between Exposure to Televised Messages About Paranormal Phenomena and Paranormal Beliefs.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 41, 345–358; Zane, J. P. 1994. “Soothsayers as Business Advisors.” The New York Times, Section 4, September 11, 2.
  3. Ede, A. 2000. “Has Science Education Become an Enemy of Scientific Rationality?” Skeptical Inquirer, 24, 48–51.
  4. Milburn, J. 2001. “Board Approves New Science Standards With Renewed Emphasis on Evolution. The Salina Journal, February 15, A1.
  5. Ede, 2000.
  6. Sparks, G. G., M. Pellechia, and C. Irvine. 1998. “Does Television News About UFOs Affect Viewers’ UFO Beliefs?: An Experimental Investigation.” Communication Quarterly, 46, 284–294.
  7. Wade, C., and C. Tavris. 2000. Psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  8. Ankney, R. N. 2000. “Media Reliance and Science Knowledge: Do People Learn Science Information From the Media the Same Way They Learn Political Information?” Poster presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Phoenix, AZ, August.
  9. Answers to the Praxis Seies National Teacher’s Exam: 1-E; 2-A; 3-D; 4-A; 5-E; 6-C; 7-D; 8-A; 9-D; 10-C.
  10. Reliability scores were as follows: CBU Cronbach’s alpha = 0.82; KWU Cronbach’s alpha = 0.83; WSSU Cronbach’s alpha = 0.82.
  11. M = Mean, or average score; SD = Standard Deviation, or the average amount of variation around the mean.
  12. Levitt, N. 1998. “Why Professors Believe Weird Things.” Skeptic, 6:3 28–35; Siano, B. 1999. “Public Relations: Blue Smoke, Mirrors, and Designer Science.Skeptic, 7:1, 45–55.
  13. Sagan, 1996.
  14. Shermer, M. and P. Linse. 2001. The Baloney Detection Kit. Altadena, CA: Millennium Press.
Skeptical perspectives on pseudoscientific beliefs…
cover Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
by Michael Shermer

In this age of supposed scientific enlightenment, many people still believe in mind reading, past-life regression theory, New Age hokum, and alien abduction. In a no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, Shermer debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing…

cover The Demon-Haunted World:
Science as a Candle in the Dark

by Carl Sagan

The great astronomer and science writer, Carl Sagan, challenges New Agers and explains social phenomena like UFOs, alien abductions, recovered memories, satanic cults, witch crazes, hallucinations, and how to detect baloney. This is Sagan’s most popular book among skeptics, filled with quotable maxims, popular among college professors as a supplemental text for students, but a classic for everyone who cares about living in a sane and safe world without superstition. ORDER THE BOOK.

Watch The Baloney Detection Kit Video on YouTube


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Lecture this Sunday at Caltech

Eric Topol (photo by John Arispizabal)
The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care

with Dr. Eric Topol
Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU COMBINE cellular phone technology with the cellular aberrations in disease? Or create a bridge between the digital revolution with the medical revolution? How will minute biological sensors alter the way we treat lethal illnesses, such as heart attacks or cancer? These questions, and more, are answered by Dr. Eric Topol, a leading cardiologist, gene hunter and medical thinker. Topol’s analysis draws us to the very frontlines of medicine and leaves us with a view of a landscape that is both foreign and daunting. As baby-boomers approach retirement age, they are going to be confronted with important choices among many new medical technologies. Don’t miss this important lecture based on Dr. Topol’s new book.

Tickets are first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

Followed by…
  • Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
    with Dr. Elaine Pagels
    Monday, March 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm





  1. Donald Clarkson says:

    Excellent feature article, but how about revealing the answers to the science questions? I am especially intrigued by question 10.

    • awc says:

      Understanding the answers to scientific questions is not applying the scientific method.

      I have met many people that are intelligent in their recalling of facts, understanding of processes, cause and effect however, still cling to beliefs that frankly fail to make any logical sense.

      • page henry says:

        why ?, my opinion is because people boring with reality, it sounds not skeptic on this skeptic forum (sorry about my English i am from none English speaking country)

        and it sounds not connected with the question. i want to say about my personal opinion
        even though i do not like for being cheat by pseudo science, but also I understand why people at this age and century tends to revolute from the right manner a bit chaos attitude, because of dissatisfaction of circumstance and state of life and of course not happy with the system. because one or another way not everybody sit on right place by destiny, at least not being expected to be by he or she or anybody, or by the words” what you got now it’s based on how big your effort for life” all seems fair for people that has a good condition on all aspects of life, and further because of this circumstance that is a fact, then for people who doesn’t make it, …what they would do? and how you think all the cheaters, writer, guru, or all parties that aware of this kind of situation will take an advantage from them to earn some bucks, from this poor people that actually inhibits 80 percent of this planet, but whatever it is, i want to sound my opinion to people on this web, that i support skeptic to protect people from false and cheats and that is something i honor you guys. but something for sure that “skeptic” will never extinguished the fire of something people really missed on their life that is ” change” change factor that can formed anything it could be ufo, myth, or the worst is doomsday so they can change most people miserable life to become new and renewal by those events, and can change their state of mind and soul and not just to be “end up just like this ” and for them whose not satisfied not only for their state now and has more intelligent above level, will pursuit the demand of their brain that will not satisfied just for who we are now, it must be something else than knowledge we already posses now something more that we can explain, and also I do not believe that we already solved all the mistery of human kind and nature that’s all folks and thank you for you all

    • M.H. Pathfinder says:

      You will find the solutions to the 10 questions in the reference section following the article.

  2. Jeannette says:

    Q. 10 is silly – the earth is closest to the sun in January each year, which is winter in the northern Hemisphere and summer in the southern (so A and C are both correct). But the closeness to the sun has nothing to do with the seasons – so the qeustion is misworded.

    And I love it that the USA is still using pieces of chalk as a standard measure! Whiteboard markers, anyone?

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      It would have been better to give months – (FWIW: Perihelion occurs around Jan 4th)

    • Jay says:

      Well, if you want to make sure Northern-Hemisphere students are paying attention the wording does have its justification, I’d say. I would expect people to interpret “winter” and “summer” as “winter/summer here, where we are”. But, yes, it’s a bit too context-sensitive.

  3. smebird says:

    “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was my first experience with any science teacher asking “Why do you believe what I’m telling you?” The episode on pseudoscience remains a family favorite, but his constant warnings that audience members should try every experiment and draw our own conclusions, was a revelation for me.

    We would have a far more skeptical population if we let teachers show Bill Nye episodes and then let students make a mess. Both my boys raced to the kitchen after each show. They were inspired because it was kids who were in control on the program, and those kids were smart, funny and irreverent — the best role models, ever. My boys wanted to be just like them, and now they are.

    Thank you Bill Nye!

  4. Larry Winkler says:

    Jeannette criticism of question 10 is right on. Perhaps the authors should work on overcoming hemisphere bias.

    That said, two of the paranormal claims are true. Of course, I can see into the future and read people’s thoughts with my mind, and voodoo does work — for those who are convinced voodoo works.

    I have little problem predicting the future of a baby, if the mother has a history of, and during her pregnancy drinks vast quantities of alcohol and smokes crack. I’m using my mind to do so. Reading people’s thoughts is often as easy. Say, I see a young couple in the park going through a typical public mating ritual, I know what they are thinking.

    Voodoo sometimes works on those who believe voodoo works. That has been documented. Isn’t Einstein who said if everyone thought the moon was made of green cheese it might as well be?

    • Jay says:

      I’d put a value of between 2 and 3 to a different point -the one about handwriting and personality traits. My experience as a high school teacher of English as a foreign language does seem to indicate that:

      -> Certain aspects of handwriting correllate more with one gender than the other -spiky claws more often seem to belong to boys than girls, who tend to prefer rounded hands.

      -> Careless handwriting, as opposed to simply motorically-challenged hands (and you get to appreciate the difference), is often correlated to lack of interest, as is very highly-decorated handwriting with extensive use of colours and elaborately styled titles.

      -> Excessively neat handwriting that looks almost like print is something I’ve rarely seen in extrovert students.

      -> Within the same age group, those hands that look more ‘adult’ almost always belong to those kids that behave in a more mature way in other respects.

      But as concerns other -or more systematically-analysed- personality trait/handwriting correllations, I simply have no idea.

      As for ‘reading’ a kid’s future with your mind, that’s not what you’re doing, and I don’t think many respondents will have interpreted this point that way. Reading clues is not the same as reading the future.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      I believe some work has been done on showing developmental variations according to the season of birth, so one’s astrological sign might have some bearing on one’s fortunes (adjusted for hemisphere, of course). It seems to me reasonable to expect that the intra-uterine and post-natal environments will be quite different for children born at different times of the year.

  5. Dan M says:

    I was thinking about the topic of your feature article (Science Education is
    No Guarantee of Skepticism) yesterday while reading Shelley Adler’s book “Sleep Paralysis.” Upon learning of the scientific explanation for the sometimes terrifying sensations and hallucinations that accompany sleep paralysis (explained by an out-of-phase REM sleep cycle), many sufferers accept the scientific explanation while at the same time maintaining paranormal and spiritual beliefs about it. “Scientific facts” merely embellish the non-scientific explanation – information about brain state etc. are simply grafted on to stories about ghosts and aliens. Many, it seems, do not see science as a way of thinking, rather as just a source of mere information that can sit happily along side other sources of information and mis-information.

    Obviously science education needs to include a greater emphasis on critical thinking, but I think we also need to realize that we learn critical thinking in many contexts other than science class. As a student, a course in history, philosophy, literary criticism, or media studies, can perhaps do more to sharpen ones critical thinking skills than a biology course. In the later, the emphasis is on memorizing received truths, while the other classes mentioned focus on analyzing statements and making arguments. So, although we do need more and better science education, what will really help us be more critical and skeptical is a more rounded education that includes the humanities and the arts as well as the sciences.

  6. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    This work is very important and I have read corroborating papers elsewhere (I’d better double-check that I haven’t read these authors’ work elsewhere). They are right that ‘science education’ does not teach students how to ‘do science’ – unlike Spanish class which teaches how to speak Spanish, and Math class which teaches how to do Math.

    One of the many reasons for this is after Middle School we don’t have ‘Science Classes’ anymore: we teach Physics, Biology, Astronomy, etc. They don’t teach ‘Science’ in a Physics class, they cover the Physics content. General science classes seem to be the appropriate place to teach evidence-based reasoning (I like that term better than ‘Critical Thinking’ is is more descriptive and more positive sounding). But general science classes only go up through Middle School, so the question is: is the cognitive development of Middle School students sufficient for them to learn something as nuanced as evidence-based reasoning?

    I sometimes think that it would be nice to have a ‘Science Reasoning’ course for college freshman (instead of the G.E. subject-based science courses) so they can learn the tools of reasoning. So they can learn that ‘All data sets are not created equal’ – And so they can learn the ugly truth that ‘facts’ aren’t as objective as we like to think: to have meaning they must be interpreted and that’s where bias creeps in. There is so much more to all of this (e.g. induction and deduction) It would be hard to fit it all into one course! Besides, you would have a hard time getting 20, 30, 60 or 100 students to develop any proficiency at evidence-based reasoning from a classroom environment. It’d be like teaching them all how to play the guitar in a lecture hall.

    Reasoning has to be taught like an apprenticeship with the master working along side the student guiding them and watching the process as well as the product of their effort. (BTW: This is how we train scientists … only we call the apprenticeship ‘Graduate School’) The apprenticeship model is the best way to teach but, alas, it is labor intensive so don’t expect any schools to implement it any time soon.

  7. Jay says:

    The findings don’t surprise me. If a solid scientific education in itself strongly discouraged supernatural beliefs, shouldn’t we expect there to be very few religious MDs indeed? Yet, there are many of them around.

  8. Abram Larson says:

    I’ve been discussing this article on the project reason blog with some of the other regulars there. We came up with an interesting follow-up study that I proffer for your benefit. For those folks that participated in your study the first time around, go back and ask them how many questions they looked up the answer to after taking the test. We think the answer to that one question would be much more correlated to the answers in the belief section. That is, the desire for knowledge is a much better predictor of critical thinking than the knowledge itself. Let me know if you do that as I’d be interested in the results.

  9. Jay says:

    I think the biggest problem with science education does not really lie with science education. If you want to emphasize critical thinking you have to restructure the syllabus giving more weight to procedural contents, which means that, volume staying the same, you’ll have to cut down on conceptual ones. What do you kick out? My impression is that the increased and increasing imbalance in the relative status of science versus humanities is a greater problem than the contents -though not, necessarily, the methodology- of science classes. Also, I am convinced that attacking the problem in university is simply starting too late.

    I am a high school teacher of English as a foreign language. My students don’t have a clue about history, mythology, the dynamics of a social entity such as a population, the inner workings of even their own language, Spanish. They can’t distinguish between fact and opinion, the latter being, to them, indistinguishable from a personal taste. They are incapable of summarising a simple text. They hardly have any imagination whatsoever, much less convictions -and be it that some band of their choice is the greatest ever. Rather than appreciating a challenge, they shirk it. They are more content if I set them to filling in gaps than if I ask them what they think, even in relation to that least personal aspect of my subject, grammar. They are not prepared to make an effort at, for instance, learning vocabulary. Their lexicon in their own language is less extensive than mine, me having learnt Spanish on the street these last nine years. It is their mother tongue, and they are 15+ years old. Present them with the word “tautology”, “tautología”, and they will rather connect it with bullfighting -tauromaquia- than anything else.

    Why? Well, languages, history, literature, art -the humanities in general- are “soft” subjects. Not really important if compared to science and maths.
    I learnt critical thinking when I tried to convert my Social-Democratic history teacher to Communism -it was such fun- and my religious education teacher, to atheism. When I took apart Goebbels’ speeches and lost nights and nights over trying to interpret William Blake’s “Sick Rose”. When I discussed “1984” and “Animal Farm” in class, and when I vainly tried to convince my Latin teacher that any slaveholding society is despicable due to the fact that slavery is wrong, whenever it may have been.

    I am, according to a Wikipedia search to check myself, a high scorer on the science scale presented in the article, and my “believer” value is very low -I gave a 2 or 3 to the handwriting point, due to observations related elsewhere.
    Of course, if the humanities are that “soft”, why bother?

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Good comments Jay.

      Critical thinking is not restricted to Math & Science. When reading literature, one must be able to apply those skills to the text, too.

      Your suggestion of changing the curriculum is a good one. If critical thinking (I still like the term evidence based reasoning) were taught in literature class, history class, music, etc, then the constant reinforcement would help students master the skill set and emphasize that this is a very valuable & flexible skill set to have.

  10. Michael H. says:

    I have a problem with question 8: Which of the following is a genetic disorder? (Answer: Down’s syndrome.) My understanding is that Down’s syndrome, or trisomy of chromosome 21, involves the number of chromosomes rather than the content of the chromosomes, and is therefore not a genetic disorder.

  11. Tim says:

    Shermer always brings up the global warming skeptics, but that’s not paranormal. If anybody was really worried about global warming, wouldn’t they be in favor of immigration control? More people = more pollution. Duh. Shermer’s right about one thing: it’s all politics.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      I guess there is a difference between believing in (or accepting) global warming, and being worried about it enough to make any sacrifices to try and alleviate it. A cruise to the Arctic to watch the glaciers melt is cynical, to say the least. Ultimately, I reckon all global warming is due to one cause: our desire to be somewhere else, as soon as possible. So in that respect immigration plays a role (unless the immigrants walk). Banning light bulbs is a political ploy to assuage our guilt about flying in planes and driving SUVs and transporting food and products around the world – activities crucial to the continuing illusion of wealth creation.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      I think you meant ‘birth control’ not ‘immigration control’ –
      unless there are people coming here from another planet.

      FWIW: many of the actions we could take to reduce CO2 emission
      would be A) economical and B) steps toward energy independence
      (with all of the nation security benefits that would entail). Notably
      these benefits would be realized in the short run – they aren’t
      something just for future generations. And yet, after a decade of
      wars in the Middle East and climbing fuel costs I still see the roads
      clogged with SUVs… Hmmm. Interesting.

  12. Nick Barrowman says:

    A statistical quibble: the authors state that at each university the correlation between test scores and beliefs was not statistically significant, and they comment that “In other words, there was no relationship between the level of science knowledge and skepticism regarding paranormal claims.”

    This is incorrect. Failure to detect a statistically significant correlation does not mean that there is no relationship. The ability to detect a statistically significant correlation depends on the sample size, and the sample sizes in this study were limited. That being said, the observed correlations were small, so any underlying correlations are very unlikely to be large. Nevertheless, it’s important not to overstate the case.

  13. Chad Jackson says:

    “A dinosaur, sometimes called the Loch Ness Monster, lives in a Scottish lake.”

    Don’t cryptozoologists claim that the Loch Ness Monster is a marine reptile such as a plesiosaur? Marine reptiles, such as plesiosaurs, aren’t dinosaurs. Shouldn’t this question thus say “A marine reptile” or “A surviving prehistoric creature” instead of “A dinosaur”?

  14. Daniel says:

    What I found most interesting about this article is the absurdity of the scientific questions posed by the Praxis Series National Teacher’s Exam. I recall taking the physics Praxis exam 6 years ago and what strikes me is that these questions require absolutely no ability to reason through the material. Generally multiple choice questions like these will lack the need to think. A good question requires a basic knowledge of the relevant principles, then from there the student ought to be able to think through how those principles apply to the specifics of the problem.
    This article explains the need to have a revolution in the way science is taught and to that end, I am attempting to redo my lab curriculum to bring it in line with the scientific method. The general idea will be that I pose questions related to lecture and have the students create their own hypothesis and experiment. If your reading this and teach physics at either the high school level or early college level and your interested in open ended lab curriculum, please reply to this posting.

  15. Former science student says:

    Being one of the older generation of people who was trained in the “scientific method,” rather than a body of facts, I agree with the premise of the problem::: IMHO, science, per se, is a method, NOT an accumulation of “facts” that, like other accumulations of “facts”, aka “religions” exist only to be challenged and superseded.

    Until such time as scientists understand this, and, more importantly, teach this as science, many reasonable and reasoning people will continue to perceive science as just one more belief system.

  16. AJ Marks says:

    Reading this one thing came to mind that the authors completely ignore and yet makes a huge difference. I will explain. Up until two years ago I was a huge skeptic about paranormal events. I had been playing a video game on my day off and decided to go get a drink. I started to stand when I noticed something odd about the door. It was moving! I remained halfway standing for about a minute as I watched my door move from about three quarters open to almost closed then back to about half way open in about a minute.
    Now, first thing I did was check around. No air conditioning was on, no fans were on, no windows were open, and I was the only one in the house. In twenty years I have learned the little things about the house, like when the AC comes on and the door is almost closed it will close. That’s simple air pressure, happens quite often and it’s easy to hear, both the AC and door.
    Now, I was completely awake, and not on any medication or doing any drugs. To this day I have yet to hear of a good explanation of what my door did. All I know is some form of energy moved it. That even makes me wonder what else is out there that science ignores simply because it is outside of their comfort zone.
    I used to think these who were die-hard believers were the ones with their eyes and ears closed. I now realize that science is the same way. It truly is sad for all of us.

  17. Paul H. Roe says:

    Skepticism has its place, but I really think humanity as a whole needs to shed it for a generation and be unfettered by the constraints of critical thinking and rationality. After 50 years of this, we will see clearer, and then perhaps critical thinking can make a reappearance to sort out the great changes in thought and advances made during this ‘Raw Age’.

    But, an endless unbroken stream of skepticism will lead to nothing but stagnation and, ironically, increased ignorance.

  18. Chris W Hanna says:

    This is an excellent piece and serves as a strong reminder for us to be vigilant in ferreting out fact from fiction, and maintaining awareness that the trappings of science do not guarantee the quality of the process or that methods used really are rigorous and scientific. Skepticism is the sail of the ship that allowed humanity to sail out the dark ages.. Mysticism and theocratic based garbage nonscience/psuedoscience still constantly strive for headway against real progress.. Be wary, be critical and be greatful for honest criticism..

  19. Vlad says:

    This study only shows that knowledge of scientific trivia has no correlation to skepticism in the paranormal. It has no scientific substance to it whatsoever.

  20. Un Tacon says:

    “As skeptics and teachers, we need to do more than merely debunk extraordinary claims. While these demonstrations are informative and entertaining, they need to be coupled with thoughtful discussions of scientific reasoning.”

    What has made me skeptical about superstitions is not any aspect of the current method of scientific research human history and putting it in a geological context. For instance the age of the planet, the size of the universe, the time of the emergence of human beings that somewhat resemble us today and the fact that the big 3 monotheistic texts are extremely recent developments, not only in the history of geology but of humanity. Then, further, there are interesting connections between technology, social order, economic bases and belief over history, which few thinking people actually investigate in enough depth, sadly. (Debunkers dismiss mythology as some kind of pathology when in fact we could learn a lot by looking at these connections.) Some of the commentators here are right on when they lament the lack of curiosity amongst people. I’m not sure that’s such a recent phenomenon, though, and there are probably instinctive causes (fears re social relations/hierarchy/order) not just simple wilful ignorance or failure to apply an appropriate methodology.

    The reason science hasn’t done as much as it could to move us beyond patriarchal theologies and other anthropomorphism is because it still maintains a vestige of theological thinking itself and still emphasizes human transcendence, albeit of a mundane kind (the ghost of the god of the world machine, a kind of prometheanism?) that does nothing to emphasize how small of a blip we will be in cosmic history.

    • Un Tacon says:

      Correction: What has made me skeptical about superstitions is not any aspect of the current method of scientific research, but human history and putting our history in a geological context.

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