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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Reviews

Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Professor heal thy self The initial sections of the course are well presented if somewhat simplistic. If the student starts out believing, for example,that an alien race advanced enough to travel interstellar space to reach our humble planet then winds up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, having lost its way to Washington D C , this course might be useful. Unfortunately, any student that illogical is unlikely to think that the course is anything but part of the grand conspiracy to cover up the existence of UFOs. In other words if the person is smart enough to buy the course then he/she doesn’t need the course. If the student is looking for a way to win a debate with a conspiracy “nut”, I don’t think this course is going to be much help. Where the course really goes off the rails is in the final lectures. In an attempt to find a skeptical scientific basis for morality, the lecturer puts forth the fantastic theory that morality is somehow genetic and an offshoot of humans being a social species. Any one who has ever dealt with a toddler knows that morality is learned not inherited. To make his point, the lecturer makes the equally baseless assertion that adultery is obviously a “sin” just ask your spouse. Apparently, the lecturer has never studied any culture other than the Christian one he grew up in. Even a rudimentary study of other past and present cultures shows that adultery, murder, incest and even cannibalism have on occasion been normative behavior for some groups of humans. Genetic morality simply doesn’t exist. There are rational ways to explain morality but genetics isn’t one of them. These lectures seriously undermine the lecturer’s claim to wisdom. After all if you cannot apply scientific skeptical methods to determine that one’s own assertions are patently wrong then how learned is the lecturer?
Date published: 2018-07-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Didn't like it I didn't like it. It seemed less about scepticism and more about his struggle with God and religion. He was definitely bias. I barely started listening to the first lecture and he was already harping on religion. I turned it off and never returned to it.
Date published: 2018-01-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The lecturer, Dr Michael Schermer, was clear and concise, staying on message throughout. For me the course was a reminder of how to think of things objectively (skeptically?) without the influence of public pressures and fear of ostracism or shaming. Topics include UFO, holocaust, ancient astronauts, paranormal and, of course, religion...looking at each from an historic perspective. For instance, Dr Schermer carefully points out the spirituality can be attained merely by observing the natural world and enjoying the complex interactions that occur naturally. The current controversy about climate change is the clearest example today of the general public's acceptance of a scientific concept, on the one hand, and the condemnation of the 'denier's' skepticism. Let's all just keep an open mind, and listen to the facts...often that bandwagon is headed down the wrong road. I thoroughly enjoyed the lectures and recommend them. Often on sale and well worth the price when there's a coupon involved.
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How to think like a wise person! I thought that I already knew everything about skepticism, but many gaps in my thinking were filled in with these lectures.
Date published: 2017-04-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Catchy Title, No Substance Topic is interesting but lectures lack substance. Closing lectures are his personal problems with proving God. As a social scientist, I had a problem with his lack of understanding social science approach to religion and God. He seemed preoccupied with prejudice. I expected an explanation of how scientists think, develop theories, research methodologies, and problem solve in each area of scientific study. We have 2000+ years of knowledge to think about.
Date published: 2017-04-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Skeptic/Not a skeptic I bought this course to review the basic principles that empower scientists and allow for unbiased investigation of the world around us and to come to proper, valid conclusions. This course was not helpful in this regard. The first lecture leaves the listener with promise but what follows is a diatribe of beliefs held by the lecturer that are not based on completed scientific investigation. He fails to enlist his own outlined principles and gives conclusions based on leaps of faith. His voice is easy to listen to and his thoughts are reasonable but not based on science that has been tested, proven and repeated. The topic outlined are interesting and will capture the buyers attention, thinking that the approach is unbiased based on the hope that the lecturer is a true skeptic, but he is not. Complete fail. Disappointed that the teaching company does not have a better system of internal control to detect pseudoscience.
Date published: 2017-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist Michael Shermer is without a doubt my favorite skeptic--super qualified to teach anyone willing to step outside his/her comfort zone to expand their horizons. I enjoy his laid back style and informal delivery. The content provides a thorough explanation of what it means to be a skeptic and transcend our built in biases as human beings. The anecdotes are inspiring and the research and statistics reflect his depth of knowledge. I highly recommend this course to anyone who wants to be a better human being.
Date published: 2016-12-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good Topics & conclusions But not Scientific The course has an excellent topic selection. I have an extensive scientific background and feel that most of the conclusions voiced by Dr. Shermer are correct. It is worth purchasing. He is best when exposing outright frauds. Unfortunately, in many cases he uses "evidence" from psychology "experiments" or evolutionary psychology to support his conclusions. It is now ell-known that the majority of psychology "experiments" of the type Shermer constantly refers to are not reproducible. There is now a whole literature on the unreliability of results from this field. Even worse, the main culprit may be confirmation bias, a pitfall Shermer uses frequently against his targets. The other type of supporting "evidence" he frequently uses is evolutionary psychology. Many consider this an invalid field, with many of the conclusions not testable or subject to many varying interpretations. For example, Noam Chomsky refers to evolutionary psychology as "just so stories". Shermer never tells listeners about the problems of psychology experiments or the logical fallacies involved in evolutionary psychology. This is precisely error that he rails against when it comes to the invalid points of view he attacks. He would have been on more solid ground if he simply used arguments from logic. For example, the Augustinian concept of God or the argument from design were demolished by philosophers as early as Hume. There is no need to invoke problematic psychology experiments or the near pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology.
Date published: 2015-12-13
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