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A Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource

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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