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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.

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

Science, Theory & Paradigm Shifts 3

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Science Skepticism & Weird Behavior.”

SCIENCE, THEORY, AND PARADIGM SHIFTS

There are three lectures in this series, they are intended to educate students about the nature of science and the power of natural explanations. This is accomplished through the concept of the Paradigm Shift. The discussion begins with non-scientific views of nature and then follows the development of scientific views and how/why they changed over many hundreds of years. This post concerns the third lecture in the series.

Examples of paradigm shifts covered in the lecture series include:

  1. the shift from supernatural to nature interpretations of comets.
  2. the shift from astrology (Ptolemaic) to astronomy (Copernican revolution).
  3. the development of Copernican cosmology to a synthesis called Newtonian physics.
  4. the shift from Newtonian physics into Relativity Theory.

Lecture 3 – PARADIGM SHIFT 3

This lecture is a continuation of the previous lecture where the paradigm shift from Newtonian physics to the theory of relativity is discussed. The lecture ends with a discussion of the cosmic microwave background and what the various differences in temperature could mean.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(16.5 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Lecture 1 – PARADIGM SHIFT 1
You can find the first lecture in the series here.

Lecture 2 – PARADIGM SHIFT 2
You can find the second lecture in the series here.

Science, Theory & Paradigm Shifts 2

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Science Skepticism & Weird Behavior.”

SCIENCE, THEORY, AND PARADIGM SHIFTS

There are three lectures in this series, they are intended to educate students about the nature of science and the power of natural explanations. This is accomplished through the concept of the Paradigm Shift. The discussion begins with non-scientific views of nature and then follows the development of scientific views and how/why they changed over many hundreds of years. This post concerns the second lecture in the series.

Examples of paradigm shifts covered in the lecture series include:

  1. the shift from supernatural to nature interpretations of comets.
  2. the shift from astrology (Ptolemaic) to astronomy (Copernican revolution).
  3. the development of Copernican cosmology to a synthesis called Newtonian physics.
  4. the shift from Newtonian physics into Relativity Theory.

Lecture 2 – PARADIGM SHIFT 2

This lecture introduces the concept of scientific paradigm shifts, the concept of empiricism, the concept of anomalies and the concept of synthesis. These concepts are discussed in the context of a paradigm shift called the Copernican and the Newtonian Revolutions.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(20.6 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Lecture 1 – PARADIGM SHIFT 1
You can find the first lecture in the series here.

Lecture 3 – PARADIGM SHIFT 3
You can find the third lecture in the series here.

Science, Theory & Paradigm Shifts 1

This PowerPoint is part of a course titled, “Science Skepticism & Weird Behavior.”

SCIENCE, THEORY, AND PARADIGM SHIFTS

There are three lectures in this series, they are intended to educate students about the nature of science and the power of natural explanations. This is accomplished through the concept of the Paradigm Shift. The discussion begins with non-scientific views of nature and then follows the development of scientific views and how/why they changed over many hundreds of years. This post concerns the first lecture in the series.

Examples of paradigm shifts covered in this lecture series include:

  1. the shift from supernatural to nature interpretations of comets.
  2. the shift from astrology (Ptolemaic) to astronomy (Copernican revolution).
  3. the development of Copernican cosmology to a synthesis called Newtonian physics.
  4. the shift from Newtonian physics into Relativity Theory.

Lecture 1 – PARADIGM SHIFT I

This lecture demonstrates the power of natural explanations over supernatural ones. The main topic is about the various ways that people throughout history have interpreted comets when they appeared in the sky. The lecture beings with a discussion about what we currently know about comets and then transitions into what ancients believed.

Two examples are given initially whereby major players in history misinterpreted the appearance of a famous comet (Halley’s comet) as a sign from god to fulfill their destiny. The first example was Genghis Cohn who began his invasion of the west after comet Halley appeared in the sky, the second was William the Conqueror who invaded England in 1066 after seeing comet Halley appear in the sky.

A third and final example is given whereby a person saw Halley’s comet in the sky but didn’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. This person was Sir Issac Newton and his interpretation of the comet was quite different because he assumed that the comet was natural. By asking simple, empirical, questions about the nature of the comet, Newton, with the help of Edmund Halley, was able to make a prediction the comet would one day return. Comet Halley did return just as Newton and Halley predicted thus proving that comets were not supernatural but are 100% natural just like the planets and other celestial bodies.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(6.3 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Lecture 2 – PARADIGM SHIFT 2
You can find the second lecture in the series here.

Lecture 3 – PARADIGM SHIFT 3
You can find the third lecture in the series here.

The Moral Arc of Science

This course was taught at Chapman University during the spring 2013 semester as an undergraduate course.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course addresses the evolutionary origins of morality, the developmental psychology of moral emotions, the historical course of moral development throughout the history of civilization, and the forces that have bent the arc of the moral universe toward truth, justice, freedom, and prosperity.

Students will look at how the arc of the moral universe bends toward truth, justice, freedom, and prosperity thanks to science the type of thinking that involves reason, rationality, empiricism, and skepticism. The Scientific Revolution led by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton was so world-changing that thinkers in other fields consciously aimed at revolutionizing the social, political, and economic worlds using the same methods of science. This led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, which in turn created the modern secular world of democracies, rights, justice, and liberty.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(209 kb PDF)

Critical & Scientific Thinking
in the High School Classroom

In the following post, a high school science teacher outlines the way in which he promotes critical thinking in the classroom through teaching his students about 6 common mistakes in our thinking.

Excerpt from Outline

In my classroom, I utilize many non‐fiction science books published for general audiences. I refer to many more as part of my presentations and even have a “book of the week” that relates to our lessons in some way. There is, however, one book that stands out. I use the entire book and my lesson was actually built around the text. The book is Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking by Thomas Kida.

As part of the first unit in both of my high‐school science classes, Environmental Science and Chemistry, I cover the scientific method. This is a subject that students have covered extensively. They are usually juniors and seniors (with an occasional sophomore or freshman) so they know by heart the ʺstepsʺ of the method, but they do not truly know what it means to think like a scientist. They are not used to dealing with the common thought processes that scientists strive to overcome. Using Kida’s book as a basis, I present the topic in the form of a quiz, having the students fill out an answer sheet for the test.

The lesson is a PowerPoint presentation with additional material over two days, covering three fallacies each day. For each of the six fallacies of thought presented by Kida, I start with quiz questions designed to illustrate the fallacy.

Download Paper/Outline:
DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(192 kb PDF)

Download Michael Dean’s PowerPoint:
DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(1.7 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Philosophy 41: Critical Thinking

The following three assignments are from the course, “Philosophy 41: Critical Thinking” taught at Los Medanos College in fall 2011 by Jennifer Saito.

Paradigm Shifts
In this assignment students must, “… present and analyze a false paradigm using [the] error theories and concepts [talked about in class] to explain how people got it so wrong.”

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(90 kb PDF)

Truth Detection
In this assignment the student’s job is to, “…become a modern truth-detective and thoroughly analyze an extraordinary claim [he/or she is] skeptical about in contemporary society. The ultimate goal is to determine whether [he/or she] think[s] there is any truth behind the claim, to analyze the persuasive techniques which are used to convince the public of its validity and to give advice to the reader about how to avoid being duped.”

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(393 kb PDF)

Metamorphosis
This is the students’ final assignment. Students must, “present and thoroughly analyze a personal case study wherein [they] got something important really, really wrong and how this error affected [their] identity.”

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(118 kb PDF)

Seminar: Science versus Pseudoscience

This course was taught at the University of Central Oklahoma during the fall 2011 semester

Excerpt from Syllabus

My goal for this course is to have each student leave with increased critical thinking and reasoning skills and the ability to apply those skills in his or her environment. Specifically, this course will teach students how to apply empirical, scientific modes of thinking in explaining the causes of various phenomena, from everyday human behavior to supposedly paranormal events. Students will become skilled in differentiating between scientific and pseudoscientific explanations of things such as psychic abilities, witchcraft, alien abduction, astrology, recovered memories, and the healing properties of various alternative medicines and techniques. In addition, students will come to understand the various ways in which we can be fooled, both by others and by ourselves, thanks to the way the human brain processes information.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(110 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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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!

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
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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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