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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.

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

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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Baloney Detection Kit

This book was required reading for the following course: “Critical Thinking: Reason & Evidence” taught by Pete Boghossian.

Baloney Detection Kit (book cover)

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.

Plus, you’ll also find: (1) Sagan’s Ten Tools for Baloney Detection and Shermer’s Ten Questions For Baloney Detection. (2) How Thinking Goes Wrong: The 25 Fallacies of Thinking Problems in Scientific Thinking. (3) Eight Sample Syllabi: How to Teach a Course in Science & Pseudoscience. (4) The Most Recommended Skeptical Books. (5) Science and Skepticism: Science, Scientific Method and Skepticism — How They Contribute to Rational and Critical Thinking. —Skeptic

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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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The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal

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

The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal (book cover)

Can a human being really spontaneously burst into flames? Just how deadly is the Bermuda Triangle? And what’s the real story behind all those alien abductions? The answers to these and many other questions lie within the covers of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal. Guaranteed to liven up any dinner party, this delightful, highly readable book offers color photographs and scientific case-by-case explanations for twenty-seven phenomena that appear to defy known science, including ghosts and poltergeists, the predictions of Nostradamus, and yogic levitation, among many others. Speaking directly to the reader, and always with respect for those who believe, Kelly gives us a bite-size, nonacademic approach to debunking hugely popular superstitions and mysteries. Did you know that you, too, can bend spoons and read minds? This book will show you how. —Publisher

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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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Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There

This book was required reading for Dr. Michael Shermer’s course, “Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek)” taught at Chapman University during the fall 2011 semester.

Paranormality (book cover)

“People are emotionally drawn to the supernatural. They actively want weird, spooky things to be true … Wiseman shows us a higher joy as he deftly skewers the paranormal charlatans, blows away the psychic fog and lets in the clear light of reason.”—Richard Dawkins

Richard Wiseman is clear about one thing: paranormal phenomena don’t exist. But in the same way that the science of space travel transforms our everyday lives, so research into telepathy, fortune-telling and out-of-body experiences produces remarkable insights into our brains, behaviour and beliefs. Paranormality embarks on a wild ghost chase into this new science of the supernatural and is packed with activities that allow you to experience the impossible. So throw away your crystals, ditch your lucky charms and cancel your subscription to Reincarnation Weekly. It is time to discover the real secrets of the paranormal. Learn how to control your dreams—and leave your body behind. Convince complete strangers that you know all about them. Unleash the power of your unconscious mind. —Amazon

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Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis

This book was required reading for Dr. Bryan Farha’s course, “Sociology of Belief” taught at Oklahoma City University during spring 2011.

Paranormal Claims (book cover)

Published in April of 2007, this academic text features articles regarding paranormal, extraordinary, or fringe-science claims. It logically examines the claims of astrology; psychic ability; alternative medicine and health claims; after-death communication; cryptozoology; and faith healing, all from a skeptical perspective. Paranormal Claims is a compilation of some of the most eye-opening articles about pseudoscience and extraordinary claims that often reveal logical, scientific explanations, or an outright scam. These articles, steeped in skepticism, teach critical thinking when approaching courses in psychology, sociology, philosophy, education, or science. —Amazon

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Scientific Perspective: Why We Believe

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Perspectives on Atheism“.

This presentation begins by correlating high levels of religious belief with high levels of scientific illiteracy in the United States. Based largely on J. Anderson Thomson’s book, Why We Believe in Gods, this presentation looks at the ways in which religious belief piggybacks on cognitive functions evolved for satisfying other purposes (social cognition) using examples from Thomson’s book.

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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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Studies in Behavior: Critical Thinking

This course was taught at the University of Findlay during the fall 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course examines the key issues associated with the scientific study of critical thinking. Although it’s common to see courses on critical thinking in many domains (e.g. education & philosophy) the scientific examination of what critical thinking is and how it relates to problem solving is exclusively an advanced topic in cognitive science. Cognitive science is concerned with the study of the “thinking mind” and when we talk about “critical thinking” we base our examination on the hypothesis that while it’s true that everyone “thinks” it’s not true that everyone “thinks well.” At the core of this class is the idea that we can all fall prey to bad thinking strategies. In this course, students will learn how to be critical thinkers when dealing with a variety of situations, as well as learn how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience. Students will focus primarily on how to think about weird situations, but if they can master the skills needed to effectively evaluate strange phenomena (e.g. UFOs) students can easily apply these skills to less bizarre situations (e.g. Will eating “Cheerios” really help lower cholesterol?). By the conclusion of this course students should be able to find answers for themselves (because everyone knows “The Truth Is Out There”) and with good critical thinking skills they will be more likely to find it.

Learning Goals

Upon completion of this course students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate scientific reading, and writing skills.
  2. Apply the science of critical thinking to unique situations.
  3. Discuss specific critical thinking & problem solving topics in depth.
  4. Understand the biological bases of behavior and mental processes.
  5. Use theories to explain and predict behavior and mental processes.

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Science & Pseudoscience in Psychology

This course was taught at Wittenberg University during the fall 2010 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

“Vaccines cause autism.” “Playing Mozart to infants increases their intelligence.” “Prayer cures cancer.” These and other sensational claims are reported daily by the popular media, who usually present them as factual because there is—purportedly—scientific evidence of their validity. But what qualifies as scientific evidence, and how do we distinguish scientifically-supported conclusions from plausible-sounding but unsubstantiated, untestable assertions? In this course, we begin by defining what science is and how it differs from pseudoscience. We then consider the basic perceptual and cognitive mechanisms through which humans gather and process information, emphasizing errors in thinking and reasoning that, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, predispose us to believe, “weird” things.

Finally, we will use what we have learned to investigate phenomena of particular interest to behavioral scientists and paranormal investigators, including subliminal perception and persuasion, astrology, near death experiences, criminal profiling, alien abduction stories, repressed memories, and “new” psychotherapies. Our goal is to be open to novel claims, coupled with the determination to subject those claims to careful scientific scrutiny.

Learning Goals

In this class, students will:

  1. Learn how science and pseudoscience differ, and why the difference matters.
  2. Explore human perception, cognition, memory, and emotion, including errors and biases that lead us to believe “weird things.”
  3. Develop tools for conducting skeptical analyses of extraordinary claims.
  4. Sharpen writing and oral presentation skills.
  5. Design, complete, and present an investigation of an extraordinary claim.
  6. Lay the foundation for a successful college experience.

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Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist
Without Being a Geek

This course was taught at Chapman University during the fall 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This comprehensive course on science and skepticism will address the most mysterious, controversial, and contentious issues in science and skepticism from a quarter century of research involving: science and pseudoscience, science and pseudohistory, science and religion, science and morality, the psychology and neuroscience of belief, science and politics, science and economics, evolution and intelligent design creationism, the Baloney Detection Kit, how beliefs can be changed, how science works (and sometimes doesn’t work) from the history of science, and many specific examples of the power of belief.

Using numerous examples from three decades of research on this subject, students will learn how to think scientifically and skeptically, and he will show how to be open-minded enough to accept new ideas without being so open-minded that their brains fall out. This course meets once a week for three hours and includes lectures accompanied by in-class demonstrations, videos, magic, illusions, and examples from pop culture, along with rigorous scientific research, plus student discussions and presentations.

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Parapsychology & the Occult

This course was taught at New York Medical College during the spring 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

A paradox in modern society is that while society increasingly depends upon science, more and more members of that society are coming to accept various pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs. Claims for all sorts of paranormal and pseudoscientific phenomena are widely treated in the media as if they were as real as, say, gravity. There is very little critical examination of these claims. Gullibility is the watchword. This course will examine a wide range of such beliefs and claims, as noted in the class calendar. One focus will be on the nature of the evidence for these beliefs. A second focus will be on the psychology of belief—what causes people to believe, often very strongly, in a claim of phenomenon that, the evidence shows, is false.

Course Objectives

There are several course objectives. At a general level, students should learn the characteristics of pseudoscientific claims and how to critically examine such claims. This will involve an understanding of basic logic and scientific methods, as well as some statistical reasoning. In addition, students should come away from the course knowing the cognitive factors that lead to acceptance of claims and ideas which the evidence shows are incorrect. At a more specific level, students will learn the facts about the various topics covered in the class and the readings and become conversant with the arguments for and against the reality of the phenomena that will be covered.

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Psychology of Reasoning & Problem Solving

This course was taught at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, California in 2011.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course has one principle goal: to familiarize students with the process of thinking critically about the world in which we live. This will involve a firm understanding of the science of psychology. A science requires adherence to the scientific method, and the scientific method requires that one obtain empirical evidence to support or refute testable theories. This course endeavours to persuade students that psychology is both interesting and vital—and that it is a key to understanding ourselves, those around us, and the world in general. Therefore thinking critically about psychology becomes of the utmost importance.

Learning Goals

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Identify and contrast the biases and inherent assumptions behind controversial statements.
  2. Explain and demonstrate the skills needed to be a critical consumer of information.
  3. Recognize the difference between an observation and an inference.
  4. Use standards of evidence derived from the scientific method to analyze and evaluate the quality of evidence presented in an argument.
  5. Recognize and explain the dynamics of at least five different techniques of persuasion and propaganda.
  6. Illustrate and apply appropriate strategies and models for solving problems.
  7. Explain and distinguish among several strategies and models for decision making.
  8. Distinguish belief from knowledge.

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(128 kb PDF)

The Bermuda Triangle

In this presentation, Dr. Shermer addresses the topic of The Bermuda Triangle and some of the cognitive biases and processes that lead us to incorrect beliefs about phenomena. The Bermuda Triangle, also known as the Devil’s Triangle, is a region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean where a number of aircraft and surface vessels reportedly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Popular culture has attributed these disappearances to the paranormal or supernatural or extraterrestrial intelligences, but evidence indicates that a significant percentage of the incidents were inaccurately reported or embellished by later authors, and numerous official agencies have stated that the number and nature of disappearances in the region is similar to that in any other area of ocean.

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(36 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

The Believing Brain

Synthesizing thirty years of research, Michael Shermer upends traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. Simply put, beliefs come first, and explanations for beliefs follow. The brain, Shermer argues, is a belief engine. Using sensory data that flow in through the senses, the brain naturally looks for and finds patterns—and then infuses those patterns with meaning, forming beliefs. Once beliefs are formed, our brains subconsciously seek out confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, accelerating the process of reinforcing them. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal.

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(285 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

What is a Cult?

What is a cult? What is the difference between a cult and a religion? Who joins cults and why? What are the social, cultural, and psychological reasons that people join cults? In this lecture Dr. Shermer presents research from sociologists and psychologists to attempt to answer these questions, while examining several examples of cults from recent history and when and why they can be dangerous.

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(105 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

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