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philosophy of science and scientific method

Superstitious Behavior: Affect Your Luck?

Does superstitious behavior affect your luck? In this presentation students use their knowledge of the scientific method to answer that question. For their final research project, the following superstitions are tested: (1) walking under a ladder, (2) opening an umbrella indoors, and (3) spilling salt. This presentation was created by Charles DeLoach, Paarth Trivedi, Eli Goodman, Brady Serwitz, and Sara Owens for Dr. Michael Shermer’s course, Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek) at Chapman University during the fall 2011 semester.

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(526 kb Powerpoint Presentation)

Science, Skepticism & Weird Behavior

This course was taught at the University of North Texas.

Excerpt from Syllabus

In this class students will utilize scientific critical thinking to examine the causes of various strange phenomena, including alleged paranormal events, magic, superstition, mystery illness, bogus therapies and pseudoscience. The main goal is to teach students how to think about weird things when they encounter them.

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students should be able to do:

  1. Describe 3 scientific paradigm shifts that have occurred within the last 1000 years and explain why they happened.
  2. Describe the importance of temporal and spatial contiguity in relation to perceiving weird things.
  3. Describe how the environment selects superstitious behavior in organisms. o Describe the role that uncertainty plays in why people believe weird things.
  4. Describe the “law of non-contradiction” and why it must be true.
  5. Describe differences and similarities between logical and physical possibilities.
  6. Describe at least two principles of critical thinking. o Define “knowledge” and how it relates to evidence & belief.
  7. Demonstrate commonsense skepticism by proportioning your belief to the evidence.
  8. Define the “criteria of adequacy” and use them evaluate competing theories.

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(188 kb PDF)

Evolution, Economics & the Brain

This course was taught at Claremont Graduate University during the spring 2012 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

Evolution, Economics, and the Brain is a doctoral-level Transdisciplinary Course designed to address large issues in which students employ knowledge and research protocols from many different disciplines to shed new light on specific problems. One of the books assigned—Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature—integrates evolution, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science to explain a single phenomenon: the decline of violence. It is a model work in transdisciplinary integration.

A transdisciplinary and integrative overview of evolutionary theory, evolutionary economics, and neuroscience (“Evolution, Economics, and the Brain”) that includes a brief history and science of evolutionary theory, along with the evolution-creationism controversy and how it evolved in the context of American history and culture. As well, the application of evolutionary theory will be considered in its integration into psychology, anthropology, ethics, and economics. The course also includes an introduction to behavioral neuroscience and will focus on teaching students how new findings in the brain sciences can inform their work in the social sciences and humanities. For example: How reward acquisition is affected by risk; Why humans are typically risk-averse and when they are not; Hyperbolic discounting of future rewards; How interpersonal trust is built and maintained; How “rational” vs. “irrational” decisions are made; The basis for cooperation and aggression; The reason people punish others; The role of hormones in decisions; The basis for social norms or ethics; The sense of justice; The basis for love and hate and how these effect decisions; War and peace; Human nature; The decline of violence; The humanitarian and rights movements; and more.

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(338 kb PDF)

The Catholic Church

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

This presentation opens with criticism of the Catholic Church in popular narratives, before a discussion of the televised IQ2 Debate—“Motion: The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Based largely on the work of English Historian, David Ranan, three historical landmarks of Church power are examined, including (1) The Trial of Galileo (Inquisition); (2) The Holocaust (Anti-Semitism); and (3) The Child Abuse Scandal. The presentation concludes by addressing the recent political activism of the Catholic Church opposing same-sex marriage and contraception.

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(143 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

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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(85 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Science & Global Change Colloquium

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

Excerpt from Syllabus

What is Science, and how is it distinguished from other aspects of human thought? Physicist Richard Feynman famously said “Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves”: words that get to the heart of the scientific enterprise. In an age when the activities of human society and technology can greatly affect Earth’s systems for decades, centuries, and even millennia to come, we must be able to evaluate the merits of ideas as they relate to the actual natural world, independent of our personal, political, or philosophical preconceptions. In this semester, students will learn the basic intellectual “tool kit” of the scientific enterprise. They will discuss how Science differs from other fields of human endeavor, with a particular emphasis on distinguishing scientific ideas from pseudoscientific thinking. Students will also discuss the influence of our understanding (and often misunderstanding) of Science upon contemporary society. In this course we examine real cases of Science gone bad, and the effect (good and bad) of popular portrayals of Science and scientists has on the public. We begin exploring the details of the origin, use, and effects of the energy resources which we use to run our world.

Learning Goals

By the end of the semester, every student should be able to:

  • Accurately employ understanding of logical fallacies and critical thinking skills in evaluating truth claims.
  • Effectively distinguish between scientific and non-scientific approaches to the understanding of the natural world.
  • Identify the major energy resources used in modern society.
  • Write webpages using html code, upload them to a University server, and maintain their personal website.

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(117 kb PDF)

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)

Skepticism & the Scientific Worldview

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

Excerpt from Syllabus

The purpose of this course is to introduce students to the methods of science, and especially its foundational philosophy of scientific skepticism. Students will learn the techniques for detecting pseudoscience; to examine pseudoscientific claims with skeptical thought; and to explore the limits and biases of personal experience. As a class, we discuss the value of a skeptical approach to human experience in general. The class is designed to be reading- and discussion-based. There will be weekly assignments from the texts, web pages, blogs, podcasts, and/or in-class videos.

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(609 kb PDF)

Science versus Pseudoscience

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

“What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.” —Bertrand Russell

“That which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” —Christopher Hitchens

“Feeling better is not actually being better. Heroin also makes people feel better, but I wouldn’t recommend using heroin.” —James Randi

This course examines basic issues in philosophy of science through an analysis of creation “science,” faith healing, UFO abduction stories, and other pseudoscience. Some of the questions addressed: What distinguishes science from pseudoscience? Why does evidence matter? Must we invoke the supernatural to explain certain aspects of reality?

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students should have:

  • Developed a healthy skepticism.
  • Formulated beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence.
  • Improved their critical thinking skills.
  • Designed experiments to test (pseudoscientific) claims.
  • Developed tools to discern reality from “makebelieveland”.

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(165 kb PDF)

Critical Thinking: Reason & Evidence

This course was taught at Portland State University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Donald Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

“I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute anyone else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute—for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two…” —Socrates in the Gorgias

This class is designed to improve reasoning and critical thinking skills. The focus is on practical/applied methods of reasoning. Students will learn to use tools to think clearly and critically about a wide range of questions and issues.

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students should have:

  • Developed a healthy skepticism.
  • Improved their critical thinking skills.
  • Formulated beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence.

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(176 kb PDF)

Homeopathy & Critical Thinking

This is one of the assignments from Eric Remy’s course, “But is it Crazy Enough?” Students must review the materials (downloadable below) provided that describe the wonders of homeopathic medicine. Their job is to analyze the materials critically and find the (myriad) flaws.

FYS 141-3 Homeopathy assignment

During class, the instructor will present a paper, a poster and a talk on the wonders of homeopathic medicine.  Students should take these as examples of what they will need to do for their final project.  Students will then be allowed to ask as many pointed questions as possible about the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning of the paper/talk.

The paper will be available on Moodle. The job of the student is to read the paper and then develop a 1250 word (roughly) criticism of the paper.  Students won’t be able to counter all of the arguments: so they may want to coordinate with other class members to pick specific sections to work on in more depth.  (All work must be their own, however.)   They should look at the paper with a highly critical eye, since they’ll be creating something similar as well as doing this for other student papers. The following are questions students should address in their paper.

  • Is the hypothesis sound?
  • Does the reasoning make sense?
  • Do the experiments account for possible complicating factors?
  • Do the experimental results actually support the hypothesis?
  • Are negative experimental results also being reported?
  • Is the displayed evidence actually significant, either in a statistics or impact sense?
  • Does the hypothesis/evidence contradict what you already know about reality?
  • Are the conclusions inflated beyond the evidentiary support?
  • Do the references say what the paper claims?
  • Is the referenced data the same in my paper and the references?
  • Do the papers include other claims?
  • Do the references even exist?

The paper heavily references original source documents. Students should work with the library to get copies of these and read them carefully. 

Since the instructor will be promoting theory, students should ask other members of the faculty questions if they do not understand the material in the original documents.  They should be able to answer basic questions about the material and give students ideas of alternate explanations if they choose to disagree with the author (i.e. instructor).

Statistics questions: XXX
Chemistry questions: XXX
Physics/quantum mechanics questions: XXX
Philosophy questions: XXXX
Biology questions: XXX

Paper Found Here:
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(395 kb PDF)

Poster Found Here:
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(3.3 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

Current Topics in Biology

This course was taught at Davis & Elkins College during the spring 2010 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course exposes students to ongoing biological research. Published articles from scientific magazines and peer-reviewed journals will be thoroughly analyzed and discussed. As part of the course, students will be invited to watch selected episodes of Penn & Teller’s Showtime TV series “Bullshit,” which exposes and debunks pseudoscientific claims and paranormal phenomena.

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Interpret scientific data, as presented in the literature.
  • Determine whether authors’ conclusions are valid, based on the available data.
  • Suggest follow-up studies to address weaknesses in current research.
  • Recognize the difference between science and pseudoscience.

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(194 kb PDF)

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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(312 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.

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(630 kb PDF)

Understanding Science & Pseudoscience Through Composition

This course was taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio during the fall 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

By the end of this semester, students will come away from this course with a greater understanding of scientific thinking, and begin to see the need for skepticism in society. In his essay “Intellect,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates.” Emerson recognizes that the search for truth might reveal uncomfortable facts for the truth-seeker, but we should take Emerson’s words to heart. An intellectual will rarely trade truth for simple peace of mind, and as students of argument, neither should we.

Through the course of the semester, students will use three textbooks to help strengthen and develop their writing in a variety of ways. First, students must recall and strengthen the conventions of previous college level writing, which includes but is not limited to studying and adopting MLA format, following the rules of grammar and mechanics, and by understanding and practicing writing different types of essays.

Finally, by constantly writing and revising their work, students will enhance their acumen for constructing effective arguments and rhetorical strategies and become comfortable with expressing themselves with the written word. By studying the various rhetorical strategies for crafting effective arguments, students will strive to find the perfect balance between truth-seeking and persuasion, which will not only allow them to grow as writers, but to grow as intellectuals as well. Writing is a recursive endeavor and must be treated like any other activity or skill. The more one practices writing the better writer one will become.

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(293 kb PDF)

Psychology of Scientific Thinking

This course was taught at Rowan University.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course is designed as an introduction to the methods of science and the role that science plays in the understanding of how the world works. Throughout the course, students will be given the tools to differentiate between valid scientific claims and those made as a result of “junk” science or pseudoscience. The main emphasis of the course will be the development of critical thinking skills and a healthy skepticism when confronted with “scientific” claims. This course is also designed to introduce students to basic psychological processes that underlie human judgment and decision making that play a role in the persistence of beliefs in pseudoscientific and nonscientific explanations of behavior and phenomena (e.g., alien abductions, ESP, etc.). In addition to providing students with essential critical thinking skills and a working knowledge of the scientific methodologies, this course is also designed to introduce students to a number of psychological processes that underlie scientific methodologies and the persistence of belief in non-scientific claims.

Learning Goals
  • Introduction to the scientific methodologies used in psychology
  • Stimulation of student interest in methods of science
  • Sharpening of critical thinking skills
  • Encouragement of skepticism when faced with information
  • Development of an understanding of the psychological processes involved in judgment and decision making
  • Differentiation between good science and pseudoscience
  • Appreciation of the ethical implications of science and pseudoscience
  • Critical evaluation of information from various sources (popular press, internet, scientific publications, etc.)
  • Understanding of the contextual nature of science and its role within society.

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(123 kb PDF)

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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(156 kb PDF)

Sociology of Belief

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

Excerpt from Syllabus

This critical thinking course interprets extraordinary claims using reason, logic, and skeptical analysis in drawing conclusions. Fringe science, pseudoscientific, and bogus health claims will be evaluated based on available evidence. Health claims, fortune- telling (astrology, psychic predictions, palm reading), alternative medicine, sensory illusions such as magic, faith healing, clairvoyance, telepathy, the lunar effect, and psycho-kinesis will be some of the topics likely covered. The role of the media in covering and reporting such claims will be explored. The course will focus on drawing plausible and logical conclusions based on evaluation of existing evidence. Assignments will include weekly quizzes, class discussions, and a formal project/presentation.

Learning Goals
  1. Have a basic knowledge of critical thinking, skeptical thought, and the scientific method.
  2. Discriminate between sound vs. faulty logic in descriptions and observations of pseudoscientific claims.
  3. Demonstrate how to conduct research and/or investigate anomalistic phenomena via a positive working relationship with a team of students.
  4. Evaluate skeptical knowledge of unexplained phenomena, its claim(s), or a central skeptical figure.

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(194 kb PDF)

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)

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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

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.

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