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Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

Professor Michael Shermer Ph.D.
Claremont Graduate University
Course No.  9388
Course No.  9388
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Course Overview

About This Course

18 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

These words are no less insightful today than they were when he wrote them in 1985. Despite our best efforts, we are all vulnerable to believing things without using logic or having proper evidence—and it doesn’t matter how educated or well read we are. Our brains seem to be hardwired to have our beliefs come first and explanations for our beliefs second. And although we are skilled at recognizing the cognitive biases in other people’s thinking, we often have blinders on when it comes to our own.

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Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

These words are no less insightful today than they were when he wrote them in 1985. Despite our best efforts, we are all vulnerable to believing things without using logic or having proper evidence—and it doesn’t matter how educated or well read we are. Our brains seem to be hardwired to have our beliefs come first and explanations for our beliefs second. And although we are skilled at recognizing the cognitive biases in other people’s thinking, we often have blinders on when it comes to our own.

But there is a method for avoiding these pitfalls of human nature, and it’s called skepticism. By using rational inquiry and seeing subjects from a scientific perspective, we can approach even the most sensitive claims with clear eyes to ultimately arrive at the truth. And today, the need for skepticism has never been more dire as superstition and magical thinking experience a resurgence in our society and around the world.

Professor Michael Shermer of Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University calls the hallmarks of skepticism the “best tools ever devised in human history for thinking about anything,” including life’s biggest questions. In Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist, he reveals how to use these concepts and techniques to better comprehend the world around you. Over the course of 18 thought-provoking lectures that will surprise, challenge, and entertain you, you will learn how to think, not just what to think—and you’ll come to understand why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

A Scientific Approach to Life   

For the skeptic, the word “science” is used in the traditional sense and in a broader context that refers to the scientific method and its systematic and empirical way of looking at the world. Skepticism 101 outlines how science works and illuminates how it can help us differentiate between real science and pseudoscience, as well as between “scientific” history and pseudohistory—distinctions that have serious educational and political implications.

Fascinating case studies illustrate how you can apply the methods of skepticism to detect specious claims and faulty logic in any scenario you encounter. Among the topics you’ll inspect are

  • the methodology employed by Holocaust deniers;
  • arguments made by proponents of creationism;
  • the biology of near-death experiences and the sensed-presence effect;
  • psychic abilities and other “paranormal” phenomena; and
  • how UFOlogists differ from mainstream scientists engaged in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

How Thinking Goes Wrong

As you learn how our brains work to form beliefs, you’ll examine the classic fallacies of thought that lead us to experience mistakes in thinking—particularly when it comes to finance—and to form bad arguments in favor of our beliefs.
You’ll discover numerous ways even smart people deceive themselves.

  • After-the-fact reasoning: A form of superstition that attributes an outcome to a previous action—such as a baseball player who believes his two home runs are the result of his not shaving
  • Coincidences: Commonly seen as deeply significant, but actually nothing more than the laws of probability at work
  • The either/or phenomenon: A tendency to dichotomize the world in a way that says if you discredit one position, the observer is forced to accept the other
  • Tautology or redundancy: Occurs when the conclusion or claim is merely a restatement of one of the premises

You’ll explore how we maintain and reinforce our beliefs through a number of powerful biases that not only distort precepts to fit our preconceived concepts, but lead us to resist other viewpoints. From confirmation bias to hindsight bias to attribution bias, over a dozen of these cognitive heuristics are presented in this course to help you recognize them and avoid falling prey to them in the future.

Why You Believe What You Believe

Is there a God? Is there life after death? Is there a basis for morality without God? Skepticism 101 doesn’t shy away from controversial questions, nor does it give final answers. What it offers are methods and hard evidence for rationally evaluating various claims, positions, and “weird things”—as skeptics call unlikely claims with only anecdotal evidence—and an opportunity to understand why you believe what you believe.

You’ll peel back the layers of conspiracy theories to examine the psychological principles that interfere with our ability to reason clearly about major events, then you’ll explore the powerful psychological forces that lead seemingly normal people to become members of cults. You’ll also take an intriguing look at the psychology and neuroscience of religion, including evidence that our religious preferences are a product of both our evolutionary heritage and our cultural histories.

Lessons from the World's Most Prominent Skeptic

As the author of 10 books on science and skepticism, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Professor Shermer brings a wealth of experience, research, and insight to this course that few could match. This seasoned and captivating lecturer is a popular speaker on the TED Talks lecture circuit and is the executive director of the Skeptics Society, which sponsors the monthly Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology.

Perhaps you’ve seen a self-help guru inspire his audience with a fire walk or witnessed a psychic giving a reading and thought there must be a logical explanation. Using empirical evidence and a scientific approach, Professor Shermer reveals the very of-this-world explanations behind these and other seemingly out-of-this world phenomena.

But more importantly, in Skepticism 101 he demonstrates how you can build a skeptical toolkit and apply this way of thinking to any claim or situation that arises.

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18 Lectures
  • 1
    The Virtues of Skepticism
    As the professor introduces you to the definition of skepticism and the concept behind the larger skeptical movement, learn how myths like the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon get started, why scientists aren’t able to effectively debate pseudoscientists, and why smart people believe in what skeptics call “weird things.” x
  • 2
    Skepticism and Science
    What is the difference between a theory and a construct? How does skepticism relate to science? How do we know anything is true? Answer these and other questions as you explore how science works, what it means to think like a scientist, and the essential tension between skepticism and credulity. x
  • 3
    Mistakes in Thinking We All Make
    From coincidences and false reasoning to tautology and false analogies, there are a number of classic thinking fallacies and biases that interfere with our ability to reason clearly and rationally. This lecture provides an overview of the 12 most prevalent types of fallacies of thought that can lead us to make mistakes in our thinking. x
  • 4
    Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
    Once we form beliefs and commit to them, we reinforce them through powerful cognitive heuristics—otherwise known as rules of thumb or cognitive biases—that guarantee we are always correct. Explore the various types of biases we allow to influence us and learn how they can both help and hinder how we understand the world. x
  • 5
    Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life
    Has the status-quo effect ever led you to complacency? Have you ever held onto a stock too long because its value fell below what you paid for it? Explore the research on how people behave irrationally when it comes to money and which cognitive biases and fallacies of thought most interfere with our ability to make rational decisions about purchases and investments. x
  • 6
    The Neuroscience of Belief
    We all have a natural tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. Learn why we’re hardwired to be superstitious and prone to making false positive errors through an investigation of the evolutionary origin of superstition and magical thinking. Discover how the brain’s neural networks drive the two central processes—patternicity and agenticity—that lead to the formation of beliefs. x
  • 7
    The Paranormal and the Supernatural
    According to Professor Shermer, there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural, and the mysteries we have yet to explain. Discover how faulty neural activity and anomalous neural firing can lead to paranormal, supernatural, and extraordinary experiences, then consider scientific explanations for these natural phenomena. x
  • 8
    Science versus Pseudoscience
    Who has the burden of proof in science—the person making the claim or the person hearing about the claim? Delve into human psychology, the need to believe, and the age-old techniques psychics use to lure people into believing that paranormal powers are real. Then, see how the preconceived notions of scientists can skew research results. x
  • 9
    Comparing SETI and UFOlogy
    What is the difference between scientists engaged in SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—and proponents of the existence of UFOs? Make a distinction between science and pseudoscience through an analysis of the supposed alien crash-landing at Roswell, physiological explanations for the experience of alien abduction, and an exploration of the attempt to answer the question “are we alone?”. x
  • 10
    Comparing Evolution and Creationism
    From the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial to the 2006 Dover trial over the theory of Intelligent Design, look at the history of the evolution and creationism debate, which has important political and cultural ramifications for science and education. Break down the “God of the Gaps” argument and consider why people shouldn’t fear evolution. x
  • 11
    Science, History, and Pseudohistory
    How can we tell the difference between scientific history and pseudohistory? What is the difference between historical revisionism and historical denial? Find out in this lecture that looks at the methodology of alternative historians and revisionists, specifically people who deny the Holocaust despite an overwhelming convergence of evidence. Conclude with an example of good historical science. x
  • 12
    The Lure of Conspiracy Theories
    Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Address the larger topic of conspiracies and conspiracy theories by contrasting erroneous claims surrounding Princess Diana’s death, the terrorist attacks of September 11, and the assassination of President Kennedy with the true conspiracy that led to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Learn the characteristics that indicate a conspiracy theory is unlikely to be true. x
  • 13
    Inside the Modern Cult
    See how the power of belief and other strong psychological forces can override the rational mind and lead people to become members of cults. Learn the many characteristics that define a cult, from veneration of a leader to isolation from friends and family, then examine Heaven’s Gate as a case study for a modern cult. x
  • 14
    The Psychology of Religious Belief
    Investigate the issues of God, morality, and the afterlife through the eyes of a skeptic. Why do so many people across cultures believe in some form of God? What role do evolution and our cultural history play in the tendency to be religious? Look at dramatic parallels in the mythology of one religion to another as you consider the many cultural and historical factors that go into the world’s religions and their varying beliefs about God. x
  • 15
    The God Question
    The question of God’s existence has plagued humanity since ancient times, but it’s no less important a topic for skeptics to consider today. Using the Christian conception of God, examine the best arguments for and against his existence and judge the answer for yourself. x
  • 16
    Without God, Does Anything Go?
    If we hypothesize that God does not exist, is morality as we know it null and void? Consider why humans are and should be moral, independent from religion and an all-knowing God. Delve into the evolutionary theory of morality through a discussion of the Natural Law theory, the cross-cultural endorsement of the Golden Rule throughout history, and evidence of pre-moral sentiments in animals and how these gave rise to real moral emotions in humans. x
  • 17
    Life, Death, and the Afterlife
    Polls show that the vast majority of people believe in an afterlife. In this last lecture on science and religion, learn the primary psychological reasons why this may be the case, and consider the dualistic nature of most religions, where the soul is separate from the body. Explore biological explanations for near-death experiences—and why the events seem so real to people who report having them. x
  • 18
    Your Skeptical Toolkit
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Explore this skeptic’s motto and assemble a “skeptical toolkit” of general principles that you can use for what the late great astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan called “the fine art of baloney detection.” Conclude with two broad observations about science and skepticism that illustrate just how important these modes of thinking are to our lives and to our society. x

Lecture Titles

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Michael Shermer
Ph.D. Michael Shermer
Claremont Graduate University

Dr. Michael Shermer is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University. He earned his M.A. in Experimental Psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the History of Science from Claremont Graduate University. Professor Shermer also taught psychology, evolution, and the history of science at Occidental College and California State University, Los Angeles. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the executive director of the Skeptics Society, and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. As a public intellectual, Professor Shermer regularly contributes editorials, book reviews, and essays to The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Science, and other publications. He has appeared on such television shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline NBC, and Charlie Rose, and has also been interviewed for countless science and history documentaries on PBS, A&E, the Discovery Channel, HISTORY, the Science Channel, and TLC. An author of 10 books, Professor Shermer's most well-known title is Why People Believe Weird Things. His latest release is The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies-How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by 32 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by One great course everyone should take Skepticism 101 is an outstanding course. Not only does it debunk some pseudoscientific beliefs, it provides the rigorous discipline for individuals to examine their own beliefs and those of others in a rational, scientific way. October 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Muy Importante! I have had more psychology and philosophy courses than I can remember (including a degree)! --If ONLY I had this course merely five years ago, I would not have lost $100,000! Terrific find! Very pleased indeed! August 6, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Need to be a Skeptic to take this course. I found “Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist” disappointing. It had very little to do with thinking like a scientist and mostly focusing on being a skeptic. I didn’t need that. I was born a skeptic but having a Ph.D in Nuclear Science and a J.D. as well as a B.A, in Social Science, I was more interested in the processes of thinking like a scientist. That is largely because we are almost daily confronted with junk science such as the how harmful cell phones are, fears of electromagnetic radiation from power lines, false information about genetically engineered foods, etc. etc. What Professor Schermer does well is explain why people are gullible enough to believe junk science which is right down his line which is psychology and that explains why the course does little to deal with scientific thinking. Just one page is devoted to the scientific method. The rest is devoted to scepticism and basically the psycology underlying scepticism. There are two types of science, the natural sciences, which I call the hard sciences because they are based on objective criteria,. Then there are the social sciences, which I call soft sciences because they are based principally on subjective criteria and that includes psychology. Personally, I do not consider social sciences to be true sciences and having taken a course in psychology, I particularly do not consider it as a science. While those who apply psychology use scientific methodology, there is no certainty in the results. Most of what Professor Schermer discusses are common sense observations that probably anyone who would take this course already knows. Interestingly, as I was listening to the course I became more skeptical of what the Professor was saying. I began to wonder where is the Professor going with this and about a third of the way into the course, I felt that ultimately he would tell us that there is no God. Early on he indicated that he was an atheist himself but in the end, at least he was true to principles in that he says he is an agnostic because it can not be proven either way that there is or is not a God. Although the professor attempts to present both points of view, he clearly favors the atheistic view which is His reasoning for that position falls short. I agree that hard science cannot establish incontrovertably that there is a God and therefore, it cannot be said with absolute certainty that there is a God. However, to me the preponderance of evidence supports the belief that God exists. I come from an atheist family but I was always open minded to arguments that God existed. But the more I studied science the more I began to believe that there was a primal cause (and I never heard of Thomas Acquinas’s theory until I took a class in philosophy in college.) And I believe that there is an afterlife because life is a form of energy and it is a scientific principle that energy cannot be destroyed, so that it is possible that when life in a mortal is extenguished, it merely changes form so in effect we are all immortal. The body is destructable but the mind is immortal. Nevertheless, the professor spends a substantial amount of the course setting up the student to buy his arguments about the existence of God and in doing so wastes a lot of time doing it. This course could be done in eight lessons at the most so it is not a good investment in either time or money to take it. July 20, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Big Picture I am most fascinated with the subject of belief and why we believe the things we do. I can relate to the stories and subjects. Patternicity and agenticity are two words added in my vocabulary. I think these words were coined by Dr. Shermer and should also be added to dictionaries and, more importantly, our thinking. We are the common denominator amongst all these stories, beliefs and subjects presented by Dr. Shermer. We could fill a book just by listing one-word myths, fables, delusions, fantasies, illusions, imaginations, legends, lores, superstitions, tales, and traditions. Its manifestations are legion. We embrace these subjects with such passion that any hint of evidence to the contrary will be met with equal and opposite intensity. Just look at the reviews by Dr. Ehrman’s New Testament course. I got a glimpse of ‘the big picture’ when I read Dr. Shermer’s book The Believing Brain about two years ago. This book was transformative. I’m used to reading books on religion as I am captivated with the subject. However, when religion was placed alongside with the other myths, illusions and superstitions a light bulb moment was ignited in my head. I suddenly had a thread of understanding of who we really are and what we are like. That was my revelation. Christopher Hitchens said it best when discussing evidence, “what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” I let go many of my own false beliefs but as Dr. Shermer mentioned, I also have to be vigilant. To think for yourselves is a gift to you, no one else. This is a must-have course for those who are freethinkers or also for those who are willing to challenge their beliefs. Great job Dr. Shermer! May 21, 2014
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