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 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining and thought-provoking Professor Michael Shermer’s course titled “Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist” is thought-provoking, entertaining, and good to listen to while driving: his pacing and articulate, pleasant delivery are easy to pay attention to without being distracted. Each lecture is divided into about 6 tracks (segments) of about 5 minutes each, and each lecture concludes with applause. Many topics are covered (UFOs, Holocaust denial, cults, the existence of God…) that few people are neutral about, with a summary of arguments on both sides. Of course people are free to believe whatever they want within the confines of their own mind / brain (Shermer repeatedly revisits whether mind and brain are the same – he believes they are; he refers to that debate -- in lecture 6? -- as “not uncontroversial”, which I understand to mean “is controversial”). As a fan of critical thinking, I appreciate Shermer defining terms, but at times distinctions between knowledge, faith, and belief seemed muddled, maybe because people seem to define the limitations of each for themselves. Some things can be self-evident, and not everything scientific is true – even mathematics has axioms which are accepted as true without proof. If the existence of evidence is the difference between skepticism and just choosing to not believe something, the weighing of evidence is still subjective (as any courtroom trial proves) because it depends on a person’s willingness (or not) to be convinced. Page 68 of the guidebook refers to “whether fraud is unknowingly or knowingly perpetrated”. How can fraud be “unknowingly” perpetrated? It requires intent, and that the fraudster has knowledge he’s lying, or be reckless in his ignorance of the truth. Also, in lecture 13 Shermer gave an example of social facilitation (defined on page 108 of the guidebook as “the tendency of people who are engaging in a similar behavior to spur one another on”) as when police beat a “perp” when they catch him following a chase after he’s fled. Police often witness people committing crime, and need to take people into custody to answer charges, but referring to someone as a “perp” (perpetrator of a crime) seems premature before a plea or verdict. Early on (lecture 3?) Shermer challenges the existence of miracles by reducing possible outcomes to matters of statistical probability. If his “what’s more likely…” reasoning were conclusive, then reality would be a lot more predictable. Shermer describes many logical fallacies and biases for which he gives examples and discusses research (unsurprisingly Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” was in the guidebook’s “Suggested Reading” list for multiple lectures). Diversity and tolerance are good and important, but lecture 11 seemed dismissive of some accomplishments of Western European civilization, almost as if it was just the result of chance. Every culture has good and bad qualities, without any culture being “superior” to another, and what kind of “intelligence” IQ measures is debatable, but Shermer’s claim that a person who can be taught to fly an airplane is as “intelligent” as the person who invented it seems to equate training to innovation. The many amazing attributes of native and aboriginal cultures can be celebrated without diminishing some remarkable achievements of other cultures that developed rapidly into modernity and spread across the globe. Beethoven’s talent to compose the Moonlight Sonata and a concert pianist’s aptitude to play it are not the same, and both are needed. In lecture 13 on cults, the words “cult” and “evil” began to be used interchangeably. Unlike Shermer, I don’t regard cults as possibly being one phase in the natural life cycle of a belief system as it develops into a mainstream religion, but his characterization of cults as evil reminded me of “People of the Lie” by M. Scott Peck. Peck proposed evil should become a psychiatric diagnosis, and one of the ways it manifests is as interference with another’s spiritual growth. Shermer suggests one antidote to evil cults is “we can stay true to ourselves”, but for that to work one would have to believe evil is something that arises totally outside of oneself, and I’m not sure that’s always the case: monstrous people could very well be convinced they’re being true to themselves. People’s judgement is often clouded when they’re weak, impaired, or vulnerable. If evil is a mental illness as Peck argued, then it’s even less likely “thinking for oneself offers an antidote” as Shermer suggests because questioning one’s own sanity is one of the first things a person stops doing when they’re mentally ill. Lecture 14 discusses the evolution of religion and its benefits in social groups. I suspect religion could have evolved when early people noticed the earth being more fertile where something dead was buried, so they started making connections in their minds between life and death, and thought maybe they could increase life by increasing death, so began making sacrifices, and war, etc. Shermer says religion is an institution, but doesn’t mention all institutions are based on inequality, which is what can make religion so oppressive and pernicious. In lecture 16, Shermer mentions evolutionary psychologists determining the science behind moral emotions, that jealousy has to do with mate guarding, and “that we pair bond because the rearing of children is so time and labor intensive that it takes two people”. It’s worth noting here, as Philip Slater did in “The Pursuit of Loneliness”, that “child rearing is not a full-time job at any age in and of itself”, and until post-World War II suburban America, “in every other society throughout history women have been busy with other tasks, and reared their children as a kind of parallel activity”. Some evolutionary psychologists hold that monogamy evolved to benefit men because it reduces fighting between males by increasing their chances of finding eligible mates. As an evolutionary psychologist might point out, your genes don’t really “care” about you being happy, their mission is just to get themselves into the next generation. Lectures 15 and 16 continue the discussion about morality and the existence of God. A sociologist might say that human beings have basic drives which they can choose to deny, whereas other animals have instincts which they must obey. But it seems belief is essential to human existence. A book I read in my youth (“The Courage To Be” or “The Wisdom of Insecurity”?) discussed three types of anxiety that people experience: physical anxiety having to do with death, nature, etc., social anxiety having to do with conscience, what other people think of us, etc,, and spiritual anxiety having to do with confronting the concept of meaninglessness in one’s life, and which leads to despair. Because humans can’t exist in a state of despair, they transcend it through faith. While Shermer presents arguments for and against the existence of God, which at times made me feel as if I were eavesdropping on a late night discussion among undergrad co-ed philosophy majors who had just returned to their dorm after attending a Bible study, I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to believe something for some reason other than being one hundred percent convinced it can be proven true. If believing there’s a meaning for suffering makes someone less bitter and less angry then that may be good enough. Many people turn to God in their more desperate moments, and believing could make the difference in being able to survive the moment. Also in lecture 15, Shermer states “honesty is vital for human relationships”. Many evolutionary psychologists might argue that deception is also vital for human relationships, which is why people have evolved to be so adept at it. Shermer quotes a version of the Bible’s golden rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) put forth by many different doctrines, including Utilitarianism, which surprised me because I’ve always considered Utilitarianism to be more of an end-justifies-the-means philosophy where right action is defined as whatever benefits the greatest number of people. Shermer kept trying to work out a relationship between religion and morality, I rather share the opinion of Bertrand Russell who thought morality is not nearly as dependent on religion as many religious people would have one believe, and that’s why he felt he always found so much more morality outside of churches than in them. The course concludes with Shermer’s “Skeptic’s Toolkit” to help people develop “skills for thinking like scientists” (I wish he’d left out the couple of Woody Allen quotes). Shermer states there are no “authorities” in science, there are just “experts”, which reminded me of my mid-1980’s business systems teacher’s definition of an “expert”: “An ‘X’ is an unknown, and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure”. Personally, when someone offers something as a fact, I ask myself, “Why do they want me to believe THAT?” Many people often don’t know the real reasons they do things, they’re sometimes motivated by some discoverable agenda, or are not being honest, even with themselves. Lastly, Shermer claims spirituality is not incompatible with science. I could assert that religion is not incompatible with science either. It’s no coincidence that Darwin and many early naturalists such as Gilbert White started out in divinity school or were ordained: they believed God speaks to man through creation, and to study nature is to study the mind of God.
Date published: 2019-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very insightful This is a wonderful book about skepticism, it is definitely a book to be read and enjoyed, the lecturers are excellent and can help anyone. Great job.
Date published: 2019-05-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Overall, quite good Overall, I thought this course was quite good. The presentation was excellent for audio. My criticism is as follows: 1. There are too many lectures that are about religion. 2. Not enough about the anti-science movement in the western world such as anti-vaccination, organic food, anti-GMO foods, natural healing, food supplements, and "new age" therapies.
Date published: 2019-05-23
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
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