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The Moral Arc: How Thinking Like a Scientist Makes the World More Moral

In this, the final lecture of his Chapman University Skepticism 101 course, Dr. Michael Shermer pulls back to take a bigger picture look at what science and reason have done for humanity in the realm of moral progress. That is, applying the methods of science and principles of reason since the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century has solved not only problems in the physical and biological/medical fields, but in social and moral realms as well. How should we structure societies so that more people flourish in more places more of the time? Science can answer that question, and it has for centuries. Learning how to think like a scientist can make the world a better place, as Dr. Shermer explains in this lecture based on his 2015 book, The Moral Arc.

Shermer’s Chapman University course, Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist, covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, free speech, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, the Bermuda Triangle, psychics, evolution, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

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What is Truth, Anyway?

In this lecture Dr. Michael Shermer addresses one of the deepest questions of all: what is truth? How do we know what is true, untrue, or uncertain? Given that none of us are omniscient, all claims to knowledge carry a certain level of uncertainty. Given that fact, how can we determine what is true? Included: subjective/internal vs. objective/external truths, Hume’s theory of causality, correlation and causation, the principle of proportionality (or why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence), how to think about miracles and the resurrection, mysterian mysteries, post-truth, rational irrationalities, the man who saved the world, Bayesian reasoning, and why love depends on evidence.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

What are Science & Skepticism?

This lecture, traditionally the first in the series for the Skepticism 101 course, is based on the first couple of chapters from Dr. Michael Shermer’s first book, Why People Believe Weird Things, presenting a description of skepticism and science and how they work, along with a discussion of the difference between science and pseudoscience, and some very practical applications of how to test claims and evaluate evidence. The image for this lecture is the original oil painting for the first cover of Why People Believe Weird Things, commissioned by the publisher and painted by the artist Lawrence Berzon.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

The audio is out of sync with the video in “What is a Skeptic?” Here’s the link to view it. If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Evolution & Creationism, Part 2: Who says evolution never happened, why do they say it, and what do they claim?

Dr. Michael Shermer continues the discussion of evolution and creationism, focusing on the history of the creationism movement and the four stages it has gone through: (1) Banning the teaching of evolution, (2) Demanding equal time for Genesis and Darwin, (3) Demanding equal time for creation-science and evolution-science, and (4) Intelligent Design theory. Shermer provides the legal, cultural, and political context for how and why creationism evolved over the 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, thereby providing a naturalistic account of life, ultimately displacing the creationist supernatural account. Finally, Shermer reviews the best arguments made by creationists and why they’re wrong.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Evolution & Creationism, Part 1

Dr. Michael Shermer takes viewers to the Galápagos Islands to retrace Darwin’s footsteps (literally — in 2006 Shermer and historian of science Frank Sulloway hiked and camped all over the first island Darwin visited) and show that, in fact, Darwin did not discover natural selection when he was there in September of 1835. He worked out his theory when he returned home, and Shermer shows exactly how Darwin did that, along with the story of the theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace. Then Shermer outlines what, exactly, the theory of evolution explains, how it displaced the creationist model as the explanation for design in nature (wings, eyes, etc. as functional adaptations), and why so many people today still misunderstand the theory and how that sustained the creationist model.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

About the photograph above

Charles Darwin described of what he called the “craterized district” on San Cristóbal, Galápagos Islands thusly:

The entire surface of this part of the island seems to have been permeated, like a sieve, by the subterranean vapours: here and there the lava, whilst soft, has been blown into great bubbles; and in other parts, the tops of caverns similarly have fallen in, leaving circular pits with steep sides. From the regular form of the many craters, they gave to the country an artificial appearance, which vividly reminded me of those parts of Staffordshire, where the great iron-foundries are most numerous.

The photograph was taken on 21 June 2004 by Dr. Frank Sulloway. Darwin hiked this area in September, 1835.

Mentioned in this lecture

Holocaust Denial

In this lecture on Holocaust Denial, Dr. Michael Shermer employs the methods of science to history, showing how we can determine truth about the past. Many scholars in the humanities and social sciences do not consider history to be a science. Instead, they treat it as a field of competing narrative stories, no one of which has a superior claim to truth values than any others. But as Dr. Shermer replies to this assertion, are we to understand that those who assert that the Holocaust never happened have equal standing to those who assert that it did? Of course not! It is here where most cultural relativists get off the relativity train, acknowledging that, in fact, we can establish certain facts about the past, no less than we can about the present.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Mentioned in this lecture

Pathways to Evil, Part 2

In Pathways to Evil, Part 2, Dr. Michael Shermer fleshes out the themes of Part 1 by exploring how the dials controlling our inner demons and better angels can be dialed up or down depending on circumstances and conditions. Are we all good apples but occasionally bad barrels turn good apples rotten, or do we all harbor the capacity to turn bad?

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

How to Think About the Bermuda Triangle

Dr. Michael Shermer examines the claims about the Bermuda Triangle using the tools of skepticism, science, and rationality to reveal that there is no mystery to explain. Selective reporting, false reporting, quote mining, anecdote chasing, and mystery mongering all conjoin to create what appears to be an unsolved mystery about the disappearance of planes and ships in this triangular shape region of the ocean. But when you examine each particular case, as did the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and especially insurance companies who have to pay out for such losses, it becomes clear that almost all have natural explanations, and the remaining unsolved ones are lying on the bottom of the ocean beyond our knowledge.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Deities for Atheists, Skygods for Skeptics: UFOs & ETIs

Dr. Michael Shermer distinguishes between two questions: (1) Are extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) out there somewhere in the cosmos? and (2) Have aliens come here? Evidence for both questions is considered in the larger context of why the issue so compels us to answer it almost religiously.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Mentioned in this lecture
Related Reading

Cults, Myths, and Religion

Dr. Michael Shermer considers the characteristics of cults, how they differ from sects, religions, and myths, the role that myths and religions play in culture and people’s lives, and what Scientologists really believe.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Cognitive Biases & How Thinking Goes Wrong

Dr. Michael Shermer reviews the many ways that our attempts to understand the truth about the world are derailed by cognitive biases, including the anchoring bias, the representative bias, the availability bias, the confirmation bias, the hindsight bias, the self-serving bias, and even the bias bias.

This lecture is part of a course that Dr. Shermer teaches at Chapman University called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist which covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Resources mentioned in this lecture

Conspiracies & Conspiracy Theories

Dr. Michael Shermer explains the difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theories, who is more likely to believe which conspiracy theories, the social, political, cultural, and psychological conditions in which conspiracy theories flourish, real conspiracies, and who really killed JFK.

This lecture is part of a course that Dr. Shermer teaches at Chapman University called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist which covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

View Conspiracies Lecture

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Resources mentioned in this lecture

Note: There was a technical glitch at the end of the lecture, cutting out most of the points of the final slides of my Conspiracy Detection Kit. Here are those slide as expanded text:

Conspiracy Detection Kit

Parallel to my Baloney Detection Kit, I have put together a 10-point list for a Conspiracy Detection Kit. The more that a conspiracy theory manifests the following characteristics, the less likely it is to be a real conspiracy.

  1. Patternicity. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy, or when the evidence fits equally well to other patterns—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely false.
  2. Agenticity. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. Most of the time in most circumstances, people, agencies, and corporations are not nearly so powerful as we think they are. If the conspiracy theory involves super powerful agents it is likely false.
  3. Complexity. The conspiracy theory is complex and its successful completion demands a large number of elements coming together at just the right moment and in the proper sequence. The more elements involved and the more delicate the timing of the sequence in which they must come together, the less likely the conspiracy theory is to be true.
  4. People. The more people involved in the conspiracy theory the less likely it is to be true. Conspiracies involving large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets typically fail. People are incompetent and emotional. They screw up, chicken out, change their minds, have moral scruples. Conspiracy theories treat people like programmed robots carrying out their commands. That is unrealistic.
  5. Grandiosity. If the conspiracy theory encompasses some grandiose ambition for control over a nation, economy, or political system, and especially if it aims for world domination, it is almost certainly false. The bigger the conspiracy the more likely it is to fail for the reasons of complexity and people that I’ve just given.
  6. Scale. When the conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger events that have much lower probabilities of being true, it is very likely false. Most real conspiracies involve very specific events and targets, such as insider trading on Wall Street, price fixing in an industry, tax evasion by a corporation, and, yes, the assassination of a political leader, but always for a narrow goal of making money, grabbing power, or ending tyranny.
  7. Significance. If the conspiracy theory assigns portentous and sinister meanings and interpretations to apparently innocuous or insignificant events, it is most likely false. Again, most conspiracies are narrowly focused and significant only to those who will benefit or be hurt. Most real conspiracies do not change the world.
  8. Accuracy. If the conspiracy theory commingles facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two, it is likely to be false. Conspiracists are notorious for sprinkling in a handful of verifiable facts amidst a vast array of conjectures and suppositions, which blur reality and confuse listeners into thinking there is more to the theory than there actually is.
  9. Paranoia. If a conspiracy theorist is extremely and indiscriminately suspicious of any and all government agencies or private corporations, this suggests a lack of nuance in understanding how the world works. Yes, sometimes “they” really are out to get you, but usually not.
  10. Falsifiability. Conspiracy theorists typically refuse to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence for the theory, and blatantly seeking only confirming evidence to support what has a priori been determined as the truth. To return to Karl Popper, if a conspiracy theory cannot be falsified, it is probably false.

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet 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.

Click to enlarge and scroll

Science Based Medicine

The James Randi Educational Foundation has produced a superb 10-part video lecture series in which Harriet Hall, M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods. The topics include: What is CAM?; acupuncture; chiropractic; energy medicine; homeopathy; miscellaneous “alternatives”; naturopathy and herbal medicines; pitfalls in research; science based medicine vs. evidence-based medicine; science-based medicine in the media and politics. The lectures range from 32 to 45 minutes. A companion course guide is also available. Listen to the audio advertisement for the course. Listen to the audio advertisement for the course.

Watch the 10-part video series

DOWNLOAD COURSE GUIDE
(492 KB PDF)

Skeptic Presents: What is a Skeptic?

In this video — the fourth in our series of videos that promote science and critical thinking through the use of humor, wit, and satire — we present a fun and informative look at the principles of Skepticism.

Help Us Make More Videos

If you would like to show your support for these 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, Michael Shermer, Pat Linse. Directed, lensed, and edited by: Brian Keith Dalton. Executive Producers: David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, Jim Robinson. Starring: Amy Rohren, Lily Catherine, Michael Shermer, Brian Keith Dalton. Music by: Videoblocks.com and Final Cut Pro. Additional Video from: Videoblocks.com. Shot on: a Canon C100 and an iPhone 5

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

FREE PDF Download

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

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