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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.

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

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.

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.

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(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)

Critical Thinking in Psychology:
Separating Sense from Nonsense

This book was required reading for the following course: “The Psychology of Scientific Thinking” taught by Monica Greco.

Critical Thinking in Psychology: Separating Sense from Nonsense (book cover)

Do your students have the tools to distinguish between the true science of human thought and behavior from pop psychology? John Ruscio’s book provides a tangible and compelling framework for making that distinction. Because we are inundated with “scientific” claims, the author does not merely differentiate science and pseudoscience, but goes further to teach the fundamentals of scientific reasoning on which students can base their evaluation of information. John Ruscio is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elizabethtown College, where he teaches courses in Research Methods and Statistics, and Research Methods in Social Psychology. His research interests include decision-making, classification and diagnosis and taxometric methods. —Amazon

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The Greatest Show on Earth:
The Evidence for Evolution

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (book cover)

Richard Dawkins transformed our view of God in his blockbuster, The God Delusion, which sold more than 2 million copies in English alone. He revolutionized the way we see natural selection in the seminal bestseller The Selfish Gene. Now, he launches a fierce counterattack against proponents of “Intelligent Design” in his latest New York Times bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth. “Intelligent Design” is being taught in our schools; educators are being asked to “teach the controversy” behind evolutionary theory. There is no controversy. Dawkins sifts through rich layers of scientific evidence—from living examples of natural selection to clues in the fossil record; from natural clocks that mark the vast epochs wherein evolution ran its course to the intricacies of developing embryos; from plate tectonics to molecular genetics—to make the airtight case that, “we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random selection.” His unjaded passion for the natural world turns what might have been a negative argument, exposing the absurdities of the creationist position, into a positive offering to the reader: nothing less than a master’s vision of life, in all its splendor. —Amazon

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Richard Dawkins gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (book cover)

Beginning with a historical introduction, the text logically progresses by discussing adaptive problems humans face and ends with a chapter showing how the new field of evolutionary psychology encompasses all branches of psychology. Each chapter is alive with the subjects that most occupy our minds: sex, mating, getting along, getting ahead, friends, enemies, and social hierarchies. Why is child abuse 40 times more prevalent among step-families than biologically intact families? Why, according to one study, did 75% of men but 0% of women consent to have sex with a complete stranger? Buss explores these intriguing quandaries with his vision of psychology in the new millennium as a new science of the mind. Anyone with an interest in the biological facets of human psychology will find this a fascinating read. —GoodReads

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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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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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Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy

This book was required reading for Thomas Holtz & John Merck’s course, “Science & Global Change Colloquium” taught at the University of Maryland during fall 2011.

Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (book cover)

Knowledge of the basic ideas and principles of science is fundamental to cultural literacy. But most books on science are often too obscure or too specialized to do the general reader much good.

Science Matters is a rare exception-a science book for the general reader that is informative enough to be a popular textbook for introductory courses in high school and college, and yet well-written enough to appeal to general readers uncomfortable with scientific jargon and complicated mathematics. And now, revised and expanded for the first time in nearly two decades, it is up-to-date, so that readers can enjoy Hazen and Trefil’s refreshingly accessible explanations of the most recent developments in science, from particle physics to biotechnology. —Amazon

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How to Think About Weird Things:
Critical Thinking for a New Age

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Science, Skepticism & Weird Behavior” taught by Bryan Lovelace, (2) “Skepticism & the Scientific Worldview” taught by Travis Knowles, (3) “Skepticism, Science & the Paranormal” taught by Martin Brigdstock, and (4) “The Scientific Method: Critical & Creative Thinking” taught by Stephen Sekula et al.

How to Think about Weird Things (book cover)

This brief text helps students to think critically, using examples from the weird claims and beliefs that abound in our culture to demonstrate the sound evaluation of any claim. It explains step-by-step how to sort through reasons, evaluate evidence, and tell when a claim (no matter how strange) is likely to be true. The emphasis is neither on debunking nor on advocating specific assertions, but on explaining principles of critical thinking that enable readers to evaluate claims for themselves. The authors focus on types of logical arguments and proofs, making How to Think about Weird Things a versatile supplement for logic, critical thinking, philosophy of science, or any other science appreciation courses.—Amazon

James Randi calls this textbook, “the most powerful, comprehensive, and readable collections of examples, explanations and caveats that I could have ever hoped for.” A library must!—Skeptic

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Why We Believe in God(s):
A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

This book was required reading for Dr. Innes Mitchell’s course, “Perspectives on Atheism” taught at St. Edwards University during spring 2012.

Why We Believe in God (book cover)

In this groundbreaking work, J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., with Clare Aukofer, offers a succinct yet comprehensive study of how and why the human mind generates religious belief. Dr. Thomson, a highly regarded psychiatrist known for his studies of suicide terrorism, investigates the components and causes of religious belief in the same way any scientist would investigate the movement of astronomical bodies or the evolution of life over time, that is, as a purely natural phenomenon. Providing compelling evidence from cognitive psychology and the neurosciences, he presents an easily accessible and exceptionally convincing case that god(s) were created by man, not vice versa. With this volume, Dr. Thomson establishes himself as a must-read thinker and leading voice on the primacy of reason and science over superstition and religion.—Amazon

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