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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

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Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

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

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
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2013
  • 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

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Your professor

Michael Shermer

About Your Professor

Michael Shermer, Ph.D.
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...
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Also By This Professor


Rated 3.8 out of 5 by 41 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Professional Skepticism - Narrow minded orthodoxy! Surely the most teeth-grindingly obnoxious category of person in the world today is the professional skeptic - a self-designated group of self-righteous nabobs who consider themselves possessed of unique intellectual capacities to see through nonsense we numbskulls can't fathom. What I have found is that without exception the cadre of professional skeptics is peopled by egoists who are EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what they are claiming to be! Far from being skeptics they are in fact invariably very limited robotic orthodox thinkers whose narcissism and arrogant belief in their own intellectual superiority blinds them to glaringly obvious facts. It is one thing to look skeptically upon dissenters from an orthodoxy but such dissenters have often been the kid who declares that the Emperor has no clothes. Professional skeptics - and Shermer is at the very top of the world pile - along with former Obama PR guru Cass Sunstein - are people who these days turn to the kid in the crowd and say: "of course the Emperor is wearing clothes - what a silly boy you are! Nothing to see here folks, move right along now!" Shermer even openly declares his faith in a philosophical position which buttresses this anti-skepticism - his philosophy that basically if you are in the majority then you have right of your side!! Anyone who these days is unwilling to seriously question the official stories given to us by governments about political and military events is hopelessly naive, complacent and just HASN'T DONE THE READING which demonstrates clearly that governments and corporations routinely lie and use their capacity to control agendas to create mass media fictions which a gullible public first accepts, then assumes is factual history and then is told by the likes of Shermer not to question! Edward L Bernay's classic 1928 work 'Propaganda' should be the first topic presented on any skeptics lecture series - as it would establish the framework for a series which really did suggest that the basis of true skepticism is to QUESTION EVERYTHING - ESPECIALLY those things which are held to be most sacred and most off-limits to questioning. For anyone who would like to find out more about Dr Shermer's approach to politically charged historical questions, I should also recommend the recent work of historian David Cole, Republican Party Animal - see especially pp.68-83. October 24, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by Be skeptical when someone inserts the word Science Sorry, I have worked too many hours in a lab, and read too many research papers to accept this shallow treatment of such a critical subject. You may find the introductory and narrowly limited topics disappointing. You will not learn how to think like a scientist from this material. You will learn how to pretend to be a scientist from this course. Fluff and confirmation bias abound. This is not even a primer course on scientific thinking skills that lead to thinking outside of the box -- and creating fresh paradigms. April 13, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Free World Needs More Skeptics Shermer's lectures are easy to digest. He seems aware that he is speaking to an audience of laypeople like myself. Terms unfamiliar to me like agenticity, patternicity, apoxia all help to expand the skeptics horizon. The Course Guidebook is both a good introduction to each lecture and a valuable review. Sadly, skepticism is becoming less prevalent in our society. Only in the free world can a person question dogma and authority without fear of being marginalized or worse. Skepticism 101 is a wake up call. Thank you Prof. Shermer. February 19, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by Seems to be titled incorrectly I went into this course with expectations that the word "how" in the subtitle was an important characteristic of the course. I judged by the cover/title and, hence, earned by disappointment. I believe that the the first several lectures were good and addressed some of the how part (although weakly in that they described the fallacies rather than gave helpful advice as to how to overcome them). Most of the rest of the lectures took on specific issues or topics like aliens, Holocaust denial, afterlife, existence of god. These are topics that are actually covered in more depth and breadth by other teaching Company Courses (like that of Prof Grimm). In purchasing the course, I had focused on the word 'how' - - - I expected more of the lectures to focus on common logical fallacies (like he addressed in the first several lectures that touched on confirmation bias, anchoring, framing, etc.) and how to overcome these natural fallacies. The lecturer spent most of the nine hours addressing specific issues... an (or actually the) agenda of his magazine. Is that really how? Or is it a collection of his arguments (rational as they may well be)? Would a person listening to this course be in the group of UFO-ologist? Or would the audience already be skeptical of the position (I believe the latter). If the latter, then, what is the value of preaching to the choir? How, if that was an operative word in the title, would have led to examples of exercises one can use to hone one's skills. I did not see or get that in the descriptions of the specific topics. Skepticism 101: An Overview of Its Thoughts - - - might be a better title, but I would not have purchased that. February 2, 2015
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