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 3.8 out of 5 by 58.
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
Rated 1 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2015-10-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2015-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2015-02-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2015-02-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Should be Compulsory . Anyone who values the quality of their decisions would be well served doing this course. When all the garbage banter like 'outside the box' and 'cutting edge' is done, this course will arm you with skills that make you look like a real genius to the fools who do not embrace The Teaching Company. I could not afford to go to college but today I am very well educated and schooled in world history and cultures. Thanks Teaching Company.
Date published: 2015-01-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A waste of time I ceased listening after Disc #1 and #2. I was bored with the subject matter and his justification of conclusions was questionable. The author's presentation was OK. I was going to return but realized I received 101 for free as part of a larger promotional package. I will give it to my local library.
Date published: 2015-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent.... ....Would be terrific if all junior high school students were given these lectures to help them think for themselves all the way through the rest of their education.
Date published: 2014-10-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A skeptic's nightmare--save your money If you are reading this review, you already are skeptical. And, that's a good thing. Save your money. The course is disorganized, repetitive, and downright time wasting. The lecturer is over the top with enthusiasm. He puts so much effort into his performance that he distracts from the content of his lectures. This course, which often refers to Oprah as some sort of guru, is just one example of why this is a skeptic's nightmare. Save your money.
Date published: 2014-10-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and thought provoking The material was presented in a logical fashion and easily understood. The data was not repetitive nor dry and dull. The information was thought provoking, refreshing and inspiring. Most enjoyable. Thank you!
Date published: 2014-10-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2014-08-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2014-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to think like a Scientist This is a wonderful, eye opening course. It allows you to see things clearly and to understand how biases cloud our powers of logic and reason. True, many people are generally insulted or upset when their beliefs are challenged. It seems that many of the negative reviews here are due to this fact. It must not be forgotten that this course is about Skepticism. It's about thinking like a scientist. Science is based on reproduceable, observable evidence. Period. Therefore, since there is no reproduceable, observable evidence that aliens have visited earth or that big foot exists, or that god exists, or that ghosts exist, by the processes of the scientific method it can most certainly be asserted that they don't. What would be the point of Prof. Shermer coming out and saying 'well, let's keep an open mind and believe it anyway'! Then the course would have be renamed " How to Deny the Need for Evidence and Promote Wishy Washy Political Correctness 101".
Date published: 2014-03-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from It did not resonate I have a minor in Earth Science, and a MS in Information science, so I am familiar with the scientific method. First, the author mentions the numerous times he was on TV with so-and-so almost, to me, as if this makes a difference. Anyone can be on Oprah, Jerry Springer, etc., and I would not call that important science. All those TV show are about ratings and the bottom line…don't kid yourself that they have any interest in truth of any way, shape, or form. One of the techniques I didn't like in the lecture was presenting a quote from people he supported, e.g., Richard Feynmann--whom I also like--in reverence, but then breaking into chuckles a bravado theatre voice when representing opponents….it kind of cheapened his argument for me. He seems to ask us to be skeptical of UFO abductions, Bigfoot, etc., but then says (with respect t to the evolutionary theory of God)…"It’s possible that around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as tiny bands and tribes of people began to coalesce into large chiefdoms and states, government and religion coevolved as social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles and legal rules. God or gods became the ultimate enforcers of those rules." I kind of felt his "it is possible" was it happened this way." Finally, as someone who believes in the big bang, evolution, and God, I have a hard time understanding how an atheist should tell a theist what to believe. I look to science to see how life is and religion to help me understand how life should be. I'd give this course a 2 but I thought there were a couple nuggets that made it a 3. I'd expect 4 or 5's in my scale as a minimum for any TTC course.
Date published: 2014-03-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Skepticism 99 Shortly before finishing this course, I'd read the book 'Abominable Science', an interesting exploration of cryptozoology - Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, etc. - which ended with some very interesting statistics about belief in the paranormal in the US - with 'paranormal' defined in such a way as to exclude religious belief. A 2005 Gallup poll reported that 73 percent of Americans hold at least one paranormal belief. So I think a course like Skepticism 101 is very important. It's important for improving the quality of our political discourse, improving the quality of our education system, and bringing back real science and history to our television sets, instead of all the Ancient Aliens and Monster Quest garbage that has made a joke out of The History Channel and its previously educational brethren. For the most part, I liked this course and recommend it. I did have a couple of quibbles with the content: 1# In the lecture touching on evolution vs. intelligent design, Shermer tries to tell theists why they should accept evolution as not contradicting their religious beliefs. It always strikes me as disingenuous and a little smug when I hear non-theists trying to tell theists-as-theists what their philosophical commitments should be. It's disingenuous because in later lectures, he's going to advocate that they shouldn't be too committed to theism, and because he's an outsider. All analogies break down at some point, but it is a little like a Christian telling a Muslim, "I don't believe in your God, but I'm sure he'd be more pleased if you wore blue when praying to him." This is a trend in popular science writing that I think needs to stop. If religious leaders want to teach that there's no conflict between science and religion, that's fine #and we can apply some skepticism and critical thinking to examine whether, in each particular case, that assertion is true#, but when scientists try to push that message, it ranks up there with the non-apologetic apology: the non-conciliatory conciliation. End of rant. 2) There is a lot of posturing and confusion in debates about who has 'the burden of proof'. Sometimes it comes across as just a debate trick - if all other things are more or less equal, having the burden of proof means you have more work to do. In debates this is often a silly issue that creates false dichotomies. There's a reason in law that the opposite of 'guilty' is 'not guilty', not 'innocent' - a distinction that often gets lost in the squabble over who has the B.O.P. So I was filled with chagrin when I heard Shermer say that the minority position has the burden of proof. 85% of Americans believe that there is some sort of god. Would Shermer then say that the burden of proof is on atheists to disprove God? Does it follow then that if the demographics change so that 51 percent of Americans reject the God hypothesis that suddenly the burden of proof would all on the theists? Does it mean that in American, atheists have the burden of proof, but in some very secular European nations, the burden of proof falls on the theists? How does that work with the assertion later in the course that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - are popularly held beliefs exempt from this useful criteria? This maxim is not a useful tool in the skeptics toolbox. Evolution didn't lose the burden of proof when most scientists accepted it. As a positive claim about the world, it still has the burden of proof - a burden that is light and easily borne on the mountain of evidence scientists have gathered and are still gathering. This discussion of burden of proof was a distraction and not a useful one. I titled my review 'Skepticism 99' because '101', borrowing as it does from the parlance of academic course catalogs, generally represents a freshman level survey course. At only 9 hours in length, this is more like remedial skepticism for people who missed that class in high school. But I think the ideas are important and this course does serve as a fine, if light, first-foray into skeptical thinking.
Date published: 2013-12-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from the skeptical skeptic I liked this course and bought it, in fact, because I had read his book. But, you must be well grounded and secure with yourself before hearing Mr. Shermer. At some point he will skewer one of your favorite beliefs. Being a professional skeptic could be lonely, I imagine. Generally, Mr. Shermer recognizes that irrational beliefs are part of the human condition. Thus, he is considerate and respectful of others while boldly stating his own disbelief. He is not cruel, nor does he sugarcoat. Only when he speaks of holocaust deniers do I sense some genuine contempt. It seems he can be tolerant of all others but them. If I have a complaint, or criticism, it would be that he is too dependent on science as a source of truth. Science is his religion, as I see him. I hope I am not misrepresenting him. There are other sources of truth: historical truth (which he does mention), philosophical truth (I think, therefore I am), legal truth (OJ is innocent) , political truth (Bush won the election), and religious truth (God lives). All positions are arguable. Ultimately, we believe because we choose to believe. That is not to discount valid beliefs, only an acknowledgement of the fog. ("Help thou mine unbelief", Mark 9:24) Mr. Shermer relies too heavily on a consensus among experts and scientists. Truth by consensus is a sandy footing, in my opinion. I guess that makes me skeptical of the skeptic. That said, learning to apply a good dose of logic and skepticism is useful, especially when buying a used car.
Date published: 2013-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Try to remember the title of this course includes, "How to Think like a Scientist". Using the scientific method to examine our belief systems seems important in today's society. Critical thinking skills are important and this course opens our mind to how many beliefs and assumptions are made without any verifiable evidence. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2013-09-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An excellent course...that could have been better This is an important and excellent course that I wish I could have liked better. Professor Shermer does an excellent job describing for the layman the philosophical underpinnings of skeptical thinking. He also does an exceptional job describing the various cognitive biases and potential examples of fallacious thinking. He also does a sympathetic (although possibly too long-winded) assessment of religion from a skeptic’s point of view. My criticism comes, however, when the professor allows his liberal progressive biases to cloud his presentation. For example, he admits to now believing in global warming (I mean climate change). Fair enough, but I think it would be incumbent for any skeptic to at least question the urgency of addressing the global warming issue or the extent of mankind’s role in global warming. This subject was not broached, however. I guess it’s easier to dismiss Holocaust deniers and Heaven Gate cultists than to have a balanced assessment of global warming skeptics and global warming hysterics. At least Shermer doesn’t accuse global warming skeptics as being Holocaust deniers (as do many of its staunchest defenders). There were a few other cringeworthy moments in this lecture, but I don’t want to dissuade others from this excellent course. If one can ignore the sometimes obvious liberal progressive bias, this course is very helpful in formulating one’s skeptical arguments. Just realize that this isn’t your “Penn Jillette’s libertarian guide to skepticism." And that is unfortunate.”
Date published: 2013-09-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Leaves You Skeptical Indeed! In this series of talks, Michael Shermer purports to speak on the importance of being skeptical in order to be ‘scientific’. In fact, he comes across more as a showman than a scholar and his objectives appear closer to self-promotion than whatever else. He refers time and again to his own appearances on various TV shows, including ‘Oprah’, that are anything but scientific. His talks are poorly organized and totally lack in intellectual rigor. He covers a hodgepodge of topics that seem to derive from his varying professional interests (and television projects): creationism, neurobiology, agnosticism, holocaust denial, UFO’s, etc. Speaking of creationism, he restricts the information provided, never mentioning that the debate is essentially limited to the United States and that it does not concern the Catholic Church, which he seems to forget is the world’s main Christian organization. With respect to religion, he consciously acts as a provocateur, equating ESP and paranormal ‘phenomena’ with mainstream faiths. Regarding agnosticism, he does not see any contradiction in searching material evidence for something immaterial such as the soul. Overall, he is clearly not used to addressing a university level audience and takes time for example to explain that 10 to the 11th power is ‘1 with 11 zeroes’. In his talks, Michael Shermer actually displays selective skepticism. For instance, he does not seem skeptical at all of psychology, that some consider a pseudo science, especially when broad conclusions are drawn from experiments with a very limited number of participants. His personal judgement appears questionable as he claims to be the founder of an event called ‘Race across America’ where cycling competitors are actively _ and unhealthily _ deprived of sleep over many days. Strangely, he refers repeatedly to ‘Skeptics’ almost as if they were part of a sect and concludes his talks by recommending a specific website to listeners who wish to learn more about skepticism. No justification can be surmised to recommend this offering to anyone.
Date published: 2013-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learned So Much from This Course! I was so impressed with this course, I purchased it for two young people, one finishing high school, and the other still in college. The information and messages of this course are critically important. I agree with some critics that it may be more philosophy than science, which is why I loved it, but he does excellent work describing and explaining the scientific method. I was also extremely impressed with his defintions of terms, such as that "facts" are provisional in nature. He's also fair and balanced re opposing arguments, even if he allows his personal politics to interfere from time to time. Excellent, highly recommended course!
Date published: 2013-08-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very disappointed with inaccuracies I love the Great Courses and am disappointed with this one. Despite the credentials and accolades of Dr. Sherman, I was surprised at how many claims he makes throughout this course that are not based on scientific evidence. It was apparent that topics he doesn't feel are verifiable or true, he paints with a broad stroke by putting all areas, such as alternative medicine, religion, faith, mysticism, supernatural, ufo abductions and the like in the same sack. The overall intent of this course is to be able to discern between fact and fiction. In some areas, Dr. Sherman came through with actionable advice that helps with critical thinking, but off-the-cuff remarks denouncing all religion as myth, or alternative medicine as such just doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny by other scientists, doctors and specialists in their fields. Also, quoting the subjective opinions of other scientists does not constitute scientific fact in all cases. I felt Dr. Sherman was a little cavalier and presumptuous about matters that he does not have personal experience with. The intent of the course does have considerable merit, but I would not recommend it.
Date published: 2013-08-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Schermerism101 This course was of little value to me and the least desirable lecture series that I have listened to from The Great Courses. This course should be listed as a philosophy course regarding Schermer's arguments on atheism and evolution and retitled: Schermerism 101.
Date published: 2013-07-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Well Presented, But Who Cares? This course is well researched, well analyzed and well presented, and after reading all of the glowing reviews of the course, I proceed with trepidation, but over and over while listening to this course, my response was Who Cares? Let's be clear, this course's objective is to explain in rational and scientific terms why space aliens and big foot don't exist and why ESP is just nonsense. I would agree with almost everything Professor Shermer said, but I can't understand why he's concerned with refuting these things. I love reading about space aliens and big foot, but my only opportunity for doing so is when I can find the Weekly World or some similar periodical in the grocery store checkout line. When mainstream scientific periodicals or mainstream scientists - even one- begin publishing articles giving credibility to these topics, I might have a little concern and Professor Shermer might have a legitimate role to play. But until that happens, I'm at a loss to understand why anyone feels it's necessary provide a scientific explanation for why space aliens did not really crash land at Rothwell. I was also troubled by Professor Shermer's discussion of religion. In two or three very cursory lectures, he simplified and wrote off over 2500 years of religious thought as really just nonsense. And, rather than being honest about what he was doing, he instead began by stating that he wasn't going to take a position on whether God exists, but was instead only going to present the evidence. Overall, this course is quite unnecessary, and a lot of it is very cursory. If you're looking for a good course on critical thinking, I strongly recommend "Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking" by Steven Novella - an excellent TTC course.
Date published: 2013-07-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Strong, Challeging Minds More than with most GCs I've taken, this course left me with mixed feelings as to overall quality. On the positive side, it's a good layperson's introduction to applied scientific method, 'right thinking,' if you will, thinking free from disorders and prejudice. It's a good mental habit to be skeptical, to question assertions, our own unexamined beliefs on important matters, and be guided by the objective evidence. We can come to enjoy, even seek out, challenges to even our most cherished inner and world views. Sometimes these challenges can lead us to modify and perhaps reject long-held beliefs that do not pass muster under close scrutiny. Other times our beliefs can be strengthened by honest mental discipline. The professor provides many interesting perspectives, sometimes accompanied by compelling evidence. With that said, however, the course seems on a lower academic plane than most of the GCs I've taken, with looser intellectual integrity. It's a course that well could appeal to a general television audience. #I hope this is not a trend with The Great Courses.# Much of the 'evidence' presented amounts to anecdotal citings of vague research, much of which I suspect is not mainstream and #ironically# could not hold up in strict academic debate. Also, there is much I've heard before and was to me a little threadbare. In many instances I did appreciate the professor's personal honesty. He is up front that he is an atheist and has come to be so my rejecting formerly held beliefs. His arguments are not without merit and are certainly plausible. He acknowledges that in the end firm, however, provable answers to many religious questions #a large part of the course# are beyond obtainable evidence and likely beyond our reasoning capacity. He does not disparage religious leaps of faith but personally does not embrace them. I can give only a qualified recommendation for this course. In audio it did not reach out and draw me in. At times it was for me pretty thin soup. Some may find it useful, however. If you think you may, listen to it, and grant it the weight and merit you think it deserves. In other words, be skeptical.
Date published: 2013-07-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun topic As others have noted, this is a fun course to listen to. The content is relatively light and, assuming the listener is a bit cynical to start with, it's easy to casually listen to as I did in my car. The only issue I had was the presenter's condescending tone used several times when quoting others. Yes, the quotes used were relevant and proved the point, but his tone used gave him slightly less credibility in my opinion.
Date published: 2013-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reasonable Doubts It does seem that more and more in America, our citizens immediately doubt that which we have every reason to trust the most (science) and yet embrace that which has never lead to the advancement of our society or understanding of the world. This course should at least make you question what you hear and see in the media and give you the courage to question the background of extraordinary claims. Even the television stations aimed at learning or science spend the majority of their programming time on ghosts, bigfoot, aliens, bible stories, and other topics that have yet to reveal evidence and yet they are treated as valid topics in the realm of reality education on equal footing with Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. I have read many of Prof. Shermer's books. All well presented with a fair and reasonable treatment of the subjects covered.
Date published: 2013-07-01
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