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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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(94 kb PDF)

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)

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

In this introductory lecture to the study of skepticism, Dr. Shermer defines skepticism and what it means to be a skeptic, employing numerous examples from the pages of Skeptic magazine to illustrate what science is and how it works, how to think like a scientist, how to think about weird things, what constitutes an extraordinary claim and why we require extraordinary evidence for it, and how to test claims of the paranormal.

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(259 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Paranormal Beliefs & Education

Does higher education systemically reduce belief? What do we know about this so far? This PowerPoint was used for an in-class presentation (in TEDTalk format) to discuss the correlation between higher education and belief in the paranormal. The presentation was created by Anondah Saide for Dr. Michael Shermer’s course, “Evolution, Economics & the Brain” taught at Claremont Graduate University during the spring 2011 semester.

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(30 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

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