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superstition and magical thinking

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.

How to Think About the Bermuda Triangle

Dr. Michael Shermer examines the claims about the Bermuda Triangle using the tools of skepticism, science, and rationality to reveal that there is no mystery to explain. Selective reporting, false reporting, quote mining, anecdote chasing, and mystery mongering all conjoin to create what appears to be an unsolved mystery about the disappearance of planes and ships in this triangular shape region of the ocean. But when you examine each particular case, as did the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and especially insurance companies who have to pay out for such losses, it becomes clear that almost all have natural explanations, and the remaining unsolved ones are lying on the bottom of the ocean beyond our knowledge.

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.

Cults, Myths, and Religion

Dr. Michael Shermer considers the characteristics of cults, how they differ from sects, religions, and myths, the role that myths and religions play in culture and people’s lives, and what Scientologists really believe.

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.

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.

Science Based Medicine

The James Randi Educational Foundation has produced a superb 10-part video lecture series in which Harriet Hall, M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods. The topics include: What is CAM?; acupuncture; chiropractic; energy medicine; homeopathy; miscellaneous “alternatives”; naturopathy and herbal medicines; pitfalls in research; science based medicine vs. evidence-based medicine; science-based medicine in the media and politics. The lectures range from 32 to 45 minutes. A companion course guide is also available. Listen to the audio advertisement for the course. Listen to the audio advertisement for the course.

Watch the 10-part video series

DOWNLOAD COURSE GUIDE
(492 KB PDF)

Skeptic Presents: Get Your Guru Going

In this video — the fifth in our series of videos that promote science and critical thinking through the use of humor, wit, and satire — we present a Con Academy mini course in the techniques of New Age Spiritual Gurutry.

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. Based on an idea by Jennifer Graf.Executive Producers: David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, Jim Robinson. Starring: Michael Shermer, Brian Keith Dalton. Music by: Videoblocks.com and Final Cut Pro. Additional Video from: Videoblocks.com. Shot on: a Canon C100.

Skeptics Presents: B.Y.T.H. Busters
(The Secret Law of Attraction)

We are pleased to present the second in a series of videos that promote science and critical thinking through the use of humor, wit, and satire. In this video, B.Y.T.H. Busters: The Secret Law of Attraction, Adam Average and Jamie Imtheman put the “Law of Attraction” to the test. If you missed our first video, The Con Academy, watch it now!

Help Us Make More Videos

If you would like to show your support, please make a tax-deductible donation to the Skeptics Society by clicking the button below. 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. Featuring: Brian Keith Dalton, Michael Shermer, Gingi Yee, Beyla Burke, Tom Vilot. Production Assistants: Eduard Pastor, Gediminas Schuppenhauer. Music by: Videoblocks.com and Final Cut Pro Production music. Additional Video by: Videoblocks.com. Shot on: Panasonic AF100, Gh2, and Gh3 cameras.

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.

Health & Skepticism

This course was taught at California State University, Los Angeles during the spring 2012 semester

Excerpt from Syllabus

An introduction to skeptical inquiry as a foundation for drawing sound conclusions about popular claims made about health-related lifestyle practices, practitioners, facilities, products, services, and information portals. Healthy skepticism emphasizes careful consideration of scientific evidence and knowledge, and human susceptibility to deception and misperception.

Learning Goals

Upon successful completion of this course, the students will be able to:

  • Discuss the major challenges, considerations, and science-based resources for distinguishing fact from fiction regarding information about health products, services, and practices promoted in the health marketplace.
  • Apply key concepts of skeptical inquiry and science-based health care to plan and conduct meaningful descriptive studies concerning the promotion of health products, services, practices, and/or information in the health marketplace.
  • Explain why testimonials regarding the effectiveness of health products, services, and practices are not trustworthy even when they are appealing.
  • Evaluate quackery as a public health problem and efforts to combat quackery.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(276 kb PDF)

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

This book was required reading for Jeffrey Brookings’ course, “Why We Believe Weird Things: Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology” taught at Wittenberg University during the fall 2010 semester.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (book cover)

They are tiny. They are tall. They are gray. They are green. They survey our world with enormous glowing eyes. To conduct their shocking experiments, they creep in at night to carry humans off to their spaceships. Yet there is no evidence that they exist at all. So how could anyone believe he or she was abducted by aliens? Or want to believe it?

To answer these questions, psychologist Susan Clancy interviewed and evaluated “abductees”–old and young, male and female, religious and agnostic. She listened closely to their stories–how they struggled to explain something strange in their remembered experience, how abduction seemed plausible, and how, having suspected abduction, they began to recollect it, aided by suggestion and hypnosis.

Clancy argues that abductees are sane and intelligent people who have unwittingly created vivid false memories from a toxic mix of nightmares, culturally available texts (abduction reports began only after stories of extraterrestrials appeared in films and on TV), and a powerful drive for meaning that science is unable to satisfy. For them, otherworldly terror can become a transforming, even inspiring experience. “Being abducted,” writes Clancy, “may be a baptism in the new religion of this millennium.” This book is not only a subtle exploration of the workings of memory, but a sensitive inquiry into the nature of belief. —Amazon

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Susan Clancy gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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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.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(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)

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.

DOWNLOAD THIS RESOURCE
(123 kb PDF)

The Bermuda Triangle

In this presentation, Dr. Shermer addresses the topic of The Bermuda Triangle and some of the cognitive biases and processes that lead us to incorrect beliefs about phenomena. The Bermuda Triangle, also known as the Devil’s Triangle, is a region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean where a number of aircraft and surface vessels reportedly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Popular culture has attributed these disappearances to the paranormal or supernatural or extraterrestrial intelligences, but evidence indicates that a significant percentage of the incidents were inaccurately reported or embellished by later authors, and numerous official agencies have stated that the number and nature of disappearances in the region is similar to that in any other area of ocean.

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(36 MB Powerpoint Presentation)

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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

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.

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.

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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