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philosophy of science and scientific method

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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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)

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