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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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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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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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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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Weird Science

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

Excerpt from Syllabus

Science is a powerful tool to understand and explain the natural world in which we all live. Because of its apparent success in so many areas of our everyday lives, there are many instances in which individuals or groups claim that certain strongly or emotionally held beliefs are “scientific” or are supported by “scientific” studies. Even some scientists may make unwarranted claims of scientific “truth” (e.g., Scientism). How can the public, often without specialized scientific training, distinguish between scientific and pseudo-scientific claims?

This course will attempt to teach how to separate reasonable and unreasonable claims by learning how science tackles difficult problems. The key is to be skeptical, but not too skeptical. Students will examine a number of beliefs, including paranormal effects, alternative medicine, creationism and intelligent design, recovered memory syndrome, pseudoscientific devices (e.g., dousing, free energy machines, fuel efficiency extenders, etc.) that all profess to be scientific, and try to explain the psychology behind this clearly human need to believe.

Assignment Outline

The seminar will consist of several components designed to stimulate critical thinking through class discussion and essay writing with 10 writing assignments in the first half of the class. There will be assigned reading from several books and one or two videos to be viewed in class. There will be a midterm essay style exam with 10 questions covering the material from the first half of the class.

Subsequently the class will be arbitrarily divided into a number of pro and con groups to examine, present and discuss several specific pseudo-scientific topics in detail (to be determined by the instructor with suggestions from the class). These topics will be presented by the students as an 8–10 minute formal oral presentation in the second half of the class. A final 5–8 page paper based on the student presentations and subsequent discussions will complete the course

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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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Perspectives on Atheism

This course was taught at St. Edwards University in spring 2012.

Excerpt from Syllabus

American mythology claims the United States is a Christian nation, increasingly accepting of all denominations and faiths. What about non-belief? Should atheism be written into, and become part of the American story? Has it already? From a rhetorical perspective this course will address a variety of related questions:

  • What are the narratives of atheism? Whose voices tell the stories and what are their interests?
  • What are the arguments for atheism?
  • How is atheism framed, both positively and negatively?
  • Why has “New Atheism” appeared recently as a social movement? What are the aspirations of the movement, the strategies used for altering perspectives, and who are their audiences?

This course will examine four different perspectives from which to view these issues:

  1. The personal perspective of “Letting Go of God”
  2. The critical perspective taking religion as its object
  3. The social perspective examining secularism in a free society
  4. The ethical perspective addressing the tenets of secular humanism.

There is an alternative American myth claiming the United States is a beacon of Liberty, carrying the torch of progressive values, scientific endeavor, and human rights ignited by the Enlightenment. Which American myth appeals to us? This overarching question will guide our journey.

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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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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)

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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