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frauds and hoaxes

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.

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

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.

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)

Public Health & Skepticism

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

Excerpt from Syllabus

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

Learning Outcomes

Students should be able to:

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

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(188 kb PDF)

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.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries:
Science & Pseudoscience in Archaeology

This book was required reading for Jeffrey Behm’s course, “Fantastic Archaeology” taught at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh during the fall 2010 semester.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology (book cover)

Committed to the scientific investigation of human antiquity, this indispensable supplementary text uses interesting archaeological hoaxes, myths, and mysteries to show how we can truly know things about the past through science.

Examples of fantastic findings support the carefully, logically, and entertainingly described flaws in the purported evidence. By placing wildly inaccurate claims within the context of the scientific method, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries demonstrates how science approaches fascinating questions about human antiquity and, in so doing, shows where pseudoscience falls short. —Amazon

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from Amazon

Skepticism, Science, & the Paranormal

This course was taught at Griffith University during the spring 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

Paranormal beliefs are important, widespread and yet rarely studied. The analysis of those beliefs is both valuable in itself and useful in developing critical and analytical skills. Since both skepticism and the paranormal are defined in relation to science, and are often strongly influenced by science, some elucidation of the nature of science and of its position in society is required. Modern skepticism the science-inspired study of paranormal claims relates both to science and to the paranormal, and seeks to influence media coverage of these issues.

The course aims to elucidate the nature of the three terms in the title and, through the lectures and the seminars, to enable the students to evaluate paranormal claims in skeptical terms. Both the seminars and the take-home exam encourage students to apply skeptical concepts to the paranormal, and to arrive at their own conclusions. The multiple choice examination encourages broad comprehension of key concepts.

Learning Goals

After successfully completing this course students should be able to:

  1. Understand the nature of skepticism, science and the paranormal and their places in western societies, as shown in an ability to outline their key attributes.
  2. Understand the intellectual tools of modern skepticism, their ethical dimensions and their applicability to paranormal claims, as shown by an ability to outline these and instance their application to specific cases.
  3. Have the ability to apply skeptical criteria to selected paranormal and related claims.
  4. Have the capacity to present the results of analysis in well-structured and logical form.

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(283 kb PDF)

The Scientific Method: Critical & Creative Thinking

This course was taught at Southern Methodist University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course will provide students with an understanding of the scientific method sufficient to detect pseudoscience in its many guises: paranormal phenomena, free-energy devices, alternative medicine, intelligent design creationism, and many others. Students will learn to think critically and to question outlandish claims, hype, and outright BS. Students’ writing will improve and they will be able to distinguish credible sources of information from nonsense; students will become intelligent consumers of information. Students should expect to do a lot of reading, writing, and, most of all, thinking.

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(377 kb PDF)

Fantastic Archaeology

This course was taught at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh during the fall 2010 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

In its broadest sense, Fantastic Archaeology describes those claims and interpretations about the archaeological record that are outside the orthodox mainstream of the scholarly and professional world of archaeology. This can range from new, as yet untested hypotheses that may become the orthodox interpretations to the outrageous claims that can be easily refuted. Students will examine this entire range of competing, non-orthodox interpretations of the archaeological record.

This course has a much broader subject area than students are likely to encounter in other courses–even in an eclectic field like Anthropology. Students have the opportunity to bring knowledge and expertise acquired in other courses, or their general life experience, to the discussions.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(630 kb PDF)

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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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