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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Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 60.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from fine art of baloney detection This was a fun and interesting course, with plenty of evidence-based content sure to engage your critical thinking skills. I recommend this course for anyone willing to dig deeper into their own decision-making processes; it’s always good to step out of our comfort zone and weigh evidence. This is about clear, rational thinking, so you have to be willing to confront your own thoughts and belief system with honesty. Personal reflection is never easy when your actions or beliefs—your culture-based worldview—is not supported by evidence. Here’s what I liked: Organized: It starts with a solid foundation on what it means to be a skeptic. Basically, you start from a null hypothesis, that X is false until proven otherwise. Dr Shermer providers a laundry list of common mistakes in thinking (fallacies, biases, effects) that fool us. There’s a good deal of scientific evidence to support what goes on in your brain from a neurological perspective. From lecture 8 it then moves on to application—illustrations of common issues where we can see biases, effects, and fallacies in action (paranormal activities, UFOs and alien abductions, conspiracy theories, cults, religion, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences). The bibliography looks really good, with many references worth the effort to track down. Anecdotes and references are up to date, while a couple others (e.g. Jonestown in the 70s & Roswell, NM) are not (still fun and relevant though). The Woody Allen jokes stick in my mind, too. And references to Carl Sagan were a nice touch…fine art of baloney detection… I was surprised that on a couple of occasions when talking about religion, Dr Shermer took an unexpected stand for an atheist and in my opinion accommodated religious listeners. He took a weak atheism position, not a strong one. Lecture 15 sets up arguments for and against the Big Guy in the sky, allowing you to make your own decision. That was very PC and accommodating for both sides. The content on historical revisionism and pseudohistory was very interesting, as was the take on morals/ethics of conservatives and liberals and the science of liberty and democracy. That debate I had never heard of before. On the other hand, some of the content was not unlike preaching to the choir. I mean, are there really any Holocaust deniers among us here? Have you actually been abducted by aliens? Do those YouTube videos showcasing UFOs and Bigfoot keep you up at night? These seemingly fluffy topics that I consider on the fringe were still interesting and educational. So, there’s a 100% chance I’ll listen again.
Date published: 2013-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Be skeptical, even about beliefs you hold dear! Shermer is an excellent lecturer that uses a cast of characters and vivid imagery in his explanation of important concepts in critical thinking. He draws on Hume, Locke, Houdini, Aristotle, Darwin, Aquinas, Plato and others to show that concepts of critical thought have been with humanity for millenia but need to be refreshed and revisited on a regular basis. Skepticism 101, as the name implies, could serve as a prerequisite for many of the other Great Courses. In particular courses such as "The Art of Critical Decision Making", "Argumentation", "Your Deceptive Mind" and "The Neuroscience of Everyday Life" could be significantly shortened with this course as background. The course starts out slowly but gathers momentum and is most valuable near the end. Because I listened to the other courses listed above first, I found the first third of this course a little slow. Lectures 1-7 explain flawed thinking in all its forms... something the lecture series previously listed also do. An understanding of these cognitive and logical pitfals is necessary to all that follows in lectures 8-24. The second third of the course, starting about lecture 8 and including specific case studies of some of the most egregious instances of human gullibility, is much better. The last six lectures are exceptional with well presented arguments regarding God, religion, morality and the afterlife. The final lecture is a real gem with Shermer delivering an excellent summation tying democracy to science (and skepticism) and giving a rousing (and faithfully voiced) reading of one of his heroes, Carl Sagan, to illustrate that logic and reason do not necessarily displace spirituality.
Date published: 2013-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rational Thinking for Irrational Times Michael Shermer has crafted a superb overview of the modern skeptic movement. This course could also be called "A Primer in the Scientific Method," Drawn from many sources and resources (especially the works of Carl Sagan) this course leads the listener through the minefields of human biases, pseudoscience, the paranormal and, finally, the question of religion and the existence of God. I've known Shermer from his other writings and appearances on various cable shows and this course neatly coalesces his body of work in the skeptical movement. This course is the perfect antidote to cable tripe such as Ancient Aliens, Bigfoot, Countdown to Apocalypse, and Monster Quest that the so called "History Channel" shamefully broadcasts. By the way, I have the Baloney Detection Kit that Shermer mentions in the last lecture and it's a very useful adjunct to this course.
Date published: 2013-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I have been listening to courses from The Teaching Company, now The Great Courses for around twenty years. This has got to be one of the most timely and helpful courses I have listened to, but you can be pretty sure that at some point you are going to get one or more of your most closely held ideas challenged. He quotes the late physicist Richard Feynman as saying "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool". It would appear that a couple of the reviewers were offended by the emphasis on rigorous thinking advised by this course. But they missed a very important point - you don't have to agree with the conclusions the author comes to to benefit from his insight into how to avoid deceiving yourself or being deceived by others in arriving at your own conclusions. As other reviewers have suggested, we would all be better off if we approached life with a little more of the skepticism of a scientist, and part of that scientific method is the realization that our conclusions are not necessarily final.
Date published: 2013-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from exceptional A conscise guide to the sort of intellectual honesty that has been sought by the best minds over thousands of years. Alas many TCC course skirt around the edges of this standard, and don't quiet find the bullseye. It is astonishing how many times excellant people have had to reinvent this wheel, in the face of a blizzard of human nature. And so history has witnessed an incredible amount of pain and suffering. This man has made an exceptional contribution to demystifying an untold number of problems. Thankyou to this professor!
Date published: 2013-05-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Skepticism 101: How to think like a scientist In the main a very useful and pertinent course, needed especially today with the continuing rise of paranormal and mystic thinking. I could do without the professor's liberal, progressive propagandizing. We have major, formally journalistic, media to carry on the propaganda and further the spin of politics.
Date published: 2013-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great and Dangerous This course should be required for any student who is seeking higher education. This course is dangerous for people who are so invested in their beliefs they are afraid to challenge them. It is essential for Americans to challenge their thinking during these divisive times.
Date published: 2013-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A hard-hitting pamphlet. Philosophers beware. Audio download. Dr. Michael Shermer's SKEPTICISM 101: HOW TO THINK LIKE A SCIENTIST is a very straightforward, clear and enjoyable application of scientific empiricism to less stringent patterns of belief such as pseudo-science, religion, new-age beliefs or politically-motivated revisions of history. It is not simply a laundry list of "this is true" and "this is bunk" pontifications. Sherman does brush a summary portrait of the scientific method to give us an idea how humility about our level of ignorance at any given time is a precious commodity. For the philosophically-minded, his empiricism may seem naive. This is a hard-hitting pamphlet — a course designed to cure us of sloppy, wishful thinking. If epistemology is what you seek, Dr Goldman's excellent SCIENCE WARS will likely satisfy much more. SKEPTICISM is also weak when dealing with the fuzzy thinking zone we associate with creativity in the sciences (hard or soft). Dr Grim's THE PHILOSOPHER'S TOOLKIT is much more complete in that area. No, what SKEPTICISM does well is give you a quick tour of popular-yet-debatable beliefs and offer more down-to-earth explanations. Science is presented as a thinking process, an applicable procedure, not a list of Truths (capital "T") that will stand forever. If you train others or are into home schooling, SKEPTICISM has much to offer. It is a great starting point to conduct debates. If you are a religious person, however, it will make your kids seriously annoying. ________________ PRESENTATION was fine. So was the course guidebook. Audio formats are sufficient and 18 lectures are just the right length. I have never seen Dr Novella's YOUR DECEPTIVE MIND, but based on its course description, there seems to be a huge overlap between it and SKEPTICISM. I don't understand how TTC allows for so much duplication. Great, especially if you are a practically-minded educator.
Date published: 2013-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb...expectations greatly exceeded Skepticism 101 was enthralling, delightful, and liberating. Of the 7 courses I've taken from TGC, this ranks in the top two. It's one of those course where you wish you could tie down friends and family and force them to listen to it. Michael Shermer's presentation was incredibly well balanced. His oration was lucid and deferential. His personal anecdotes added humility and humor while reminding the listner how humans are anything but inherently logical creatures. At least 2 dozen Thomas Huxley quotes could be attributed to Shermer's wisdom and philosophy. As an individual who was raised to think superstitiously and "magically", and who has spent years of his adulthood trying to set the record straight, Skepticism 101 provided me with a wealth of knowledge to combat the obstacles in my path toward critical thinking. Obstacles like biases, unreliable memories, group think, pseudoscience, false perceptions, etc. were examined and addressed so as to help the student become well practiced in Metacognition- thinking about thinking. His course helped to solidify my faith in the ideals of the scientific method. I would highly recommend this course. This course has the potential to start an individual off on the right track in this- the information age. For this reason I believe it would be a useful teaching tool in high school, or for parents to utilize with their teenager. Steven Novella's course: Your Deceptive Mind, compliments Skepticism 101 perfectly. Also Robert Sapolsky's fun course: Being Human, bounces off nicely with the idea of the human brain as flawed yet flexible for growth and change. Also, because Professor Shermer spent ample time addressing spirituality and religion, Andrew Newberg's course: The Spiritual Brain, could be helpful for those interested in the subject.
Date published: 2013-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Skepticism at its best Great course on how people tend to believe in conspiracy theories, UFO'S, Bigfoot, religions, psychics, paranormal, gods and other beliefs that are without any empirical evidence. Professor Shermer teaches how to filter out pseudoscience and other beliefs that have no evidence and also how to put up that skeptical filter. Great course for everyone.
Date published: 2013-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful! I think this course should be required listening for all college students, and maybe even all high school students. It is a course about how to think, about how to transcend our many cultural and innate biases, and about how to separate fact from fiction. It is a rare delight to hear so many taboo subjects discussed in such a logical, plainspoken way. Many will find the subject matter controversial and challenging, but I found it positively enlightening.
Date published: 2013-05-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from How To Think Like Dr. Michael Shermer I purchased this course thinking I was going to listen to an unbiased opinion about skepticism from Dr. Michael Shermer. But throughout courses 1 through 6, I felt like Dr. Michael Shermer was teaching me how to think like him! I mean he's a diehard skeptic when it comes to religion and the supernatural. I bought over 100 courses from the Teaching Company and this is the first I've returned. I gave this course a modest 3 stars, since I personally didn't find it useful for myself.
Date published: 2013-05-14
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