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Science & Pseudoscience in Psychology

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

Excerpt from Syllabus

“Vaccines cause autism.” “Playing Mozart to infants increases their intelligence.” “Prayer cures cancer.” These and other sensational claims are reported daily by the popular media, who usually present them as factual because there is—purportedly—scientific evidence of their validity. But what qualifies as scientific evidence, and how do we distinguish scientifically-supported conclusions from plausible-sounding but unsubstantiated, untestable assertions? In this course, we begin by defining what science is and how it differs from pseudoscience. We then consider the basic perceptual and cognitive mechanisms through which humans gather and process information, emphasizing errors in thinking and reasoning that, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, predispose us to believe, “weird” things.

Finally, we will use what we have learned to investigate phenomena of particular interest to behavioral scientists and paranormal investigators, including subliminal perception and persuasion, astrology, near death experiences, criminal profiling, alien abduction stories, repressed memories, and “new” psychotherapies. Our goal is to be open to novel claims, coupled with the determination to subject those claims to careful scientific scrutiny.

Learning Goals

In this class, students will:

  1. Learn how science and pseudoscience differ, and why the difference matters.
  2. Explore human perception, cognition, memory, and emotion, including errors and biases that lead us to believe “weird things.”
  3. Develop tools for conducting skeptical analyses of extraordinary claims.
  4. Sharpen writing and oral presentation skills.
  5. Design, complete, and present an investigation of an extraordinary claim.
  6. Lay the foundation for a successful college experience.

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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)

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)

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions:
Just Say No!

In this talk, Dr. Peter Boghossian argues that faith-based processes are unreliable and unlikely to lead one to the truth. Since our goal as knowers is to have more true beliefs than false ones, faith, as a process for getting to the truth, should be abandoned in favor of other, more reliable processes. The talk was followed by a question and answer session from the audience. This presentation, sponsored by the Freethinkers of Portland State University and published by philosophynews.com, was given by Dr. Peter Boghossian of Portland State University on January 27, 2012.

The Believing Brain

Synthesizing thirty years of research, Michael Shermer upends traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. Simply put, beliefs come first, and explanations for beliefs follow. The brain, Shermer argues, is a belief engine. Using sensory data that flow in through the senses, the brain naturally looks for and finds patterns—and then infuses those patterns with meaning, forming beliefs. Once beliefs are formed, our brains subconsciously seek out confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, accelerating the process of reinforcing them. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal.

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(285 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

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

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

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(259 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

But Is It Crazy Enough?

This course was taught at Gettysburg College during the fall 2011 semester.

Excerpt from Syllabus

This course will explore a number of controversial theories in a variety of different, and hopefully fun, ways. It will be somewhat different than most science courses students may have taken up until this point: it will be far more interactive and experimental. Students won’t have any tests; they will have papers, oral presentations, posters, speeches and other activities instead, and run large portions of the course themselves. Students will also have to be a bit more creative than they may be used to in class. They may even find themselves singing through part of it!

By the end of the course, students should have an appreciation for how science is used to sort truth from fiction and what it takes to settle a debate in science. They will also better understand the reason why correct theories may be rejected for decades before being accepted, while others have been proved as false as possible within the realm of science.

Learning goals
  1. Understand the scientific process and how theories are developed and tested over time.
  2. Understand how scientific discoveries can affect culture and society, and how society can react to the presentation of controversial scientific ideas.
  3. Understand how ideas are presented within academia, how peer review works and how to effectively use speeches, written papers, academic posters, Powerpoint and other visual aids to present an argument.
  4. Understand research tools, databases and other academic resources.
  5. Be better able to uncover deception in an argument ranging from shading the truth to outright fabrication.
  6. Understand how a scientific theory can be used politically to justify multiple points of view.
  7. Be better able to evaluate popular magazine, newspaper and internet articles discussing controversial ideas.

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(130 kb PDF)

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