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How to Learn to Think Like a Scientist
(Without Being a Geek)

by Michael Shermer, Jul 03 2012

Or: What it was Like Teaching a Course in Skepticism 101?

Explore the Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center

On March 31, 2011, I debated Deepak Chopra at Chapman University on “The Nature of Reality” that also featured Stuart Hameroff, Leonard Mlodinow, and several other commentators, all choreographed by the Chancellor of Chapman University, mathematician Daniele Struppa. In the greenroom before the debate Dr. Struppa was reviewing my bio and noted that I am an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and made a comment that I should be an adjunct professor at Chapman as well. I said something like “sure, why not?” and when he introduced me on stage he said something about how I might also one day teach there. Daniele said I could teach anything I want as part of their Freshman Foundations Courses, so I suggested a course on Skepticism 101, or how to think like a scientist (without being a geek). I taught it the Fall semester of 2011 to 35 incoming Freshman students and it was a blast.

During the semester I hatched the idea that since the Skeptics Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization specializing in science education, that we should organize all the course materials that professors and teachers around the world are already utilizing. That is, as I was developing my own course materials I remembered all the requests we had received over the years at the Skeptics Society from educators to reprint articles from Skeptic magazine or use videos of our Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. There are, in fact, hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of such courses that go under various names that involve skepticism, science and pseudoscience, science and the paranormal, psychology and parapsychology, the psychology of belief, the history of science, the philosophy of science, science studies, critical thinking, and the like. As I went digging through our own webpage Skeptic.com and surfed the Net for other teacher’s webpages in search of good teaching materials, we thought it might be good to invite people to submit their course syllabi, lectures, Powerpoint and Keynote presentations, videos, student projects, reading lists, and the like, which we just launched last week.

EXPLORE THE SKEPTICISM 101 RESOURCE CENTER

Thanks to the support of my good friend Tyson Jacobsen I was able to hire an outstanding graduate student, Anondah Saide, to organize the Skepticism 101 program for us, which began with her TAing the Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University. Anondah was one of my graduate students at Claremont Graduate University who conducts research into the sociology of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and she has a deep interest in education and how to teach students to think critically about the paranormal and the supernatural, so she was a perfect fit for the class and this program.

The premise of the course is that we have a serious problem: we live in the Age of Science and yet pseudoscience and the paranormal are believed by far too many people still. Yes, it is better than it was 500 years ago when nearly everyone believed nonsense, but these figures from a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, who were asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not”:

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Yikes! More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. And yet, such results match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades, including internationally. For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. A fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.

This got the attention of these Chapman students and they got right into it. We had them write an Opinion Editorial as if it were going to be submitted to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, in order to teach them how to communicate clearly and succinctly to a wider audience about a controversial idea (they could pick any idea from the course, which was quite broad in scope). They also had to do an 18-minute TED talk or participate in a 2 x 2 debate. It won’t surprise you to know that most 18-year old students are well aware of TED talks and have watched numerous videos at TED.com, including my own. The point was to teach them how to organize a short talk and say something meaningful in a brief period of time. The point of this exercise was to have a point! They did. And then some. Most were skeptical of the paranormal and the supernatural, so of course we had a few pro-atheist TED talks, but there were a couple of pro-God and pro-paranormal talks as well, just to spice things up. The most memorable talk had to be by a student who in explaining evolutionary psychology and why natural selection shaped us to prefer (that is, find attractive) symmetrical faces, clear complexions, shapely bodies (wide shoulders and a narrow waist in men, an hourglass figure in women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio), and the like, then put up a slide of Rosie O’Donnell as an illustration of pure ugliness and why no male could possibly find her attractive. Needless to say, in the requisite Q&A (every talk had one) the women in the class made mince meat of this fellow.

As well, the students were given a midterm and final exam in essay format based on the readings for the course, which included my own Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, bookended around Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic, and the book they all loved the most: Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality. In Paranormality, Wiseman provides numerous examples of how to test paranormal claims, and this led to the students final major assignment, which was a research project and YouTube video production to accompany it (or a Powerpoint presentation of their data). Check out the student projects that we have already posted in our Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center.

The point of these exercises was to get students doing things that involve skepticism, not just reading and answering test questions, as well as encourage them to have fun doing so by trying to make their presentations entertaining as well as educational.

I also tried something new (for me anyway) in grading: Anondah and I independently rated each student’s OpEd, TED talk, midterm and final answer, research project, and YouTube video or Powerpoint presentation, then compared our ratings, added them up and divided by 2. During the student talks and presentations Anondah and I sat at the back of the room as the “judges”—I joked that we were like Simon and Paula on American Idol playing good cop-bad cop. That was kinda fun.

Because the course deals with many serious subjects, such as religious beliefs, political positions, social attitudes, and the like, we also outlined for them our policy on controversies:

Controversy Disclaimer

This course deals with many controversial topics related to people’s deepest held beliefs about god and religion, science and technology, politics and economics, morality and ethics, and social attitudes and cultural assumptions. I hope to challenge you to think about your beliefs in all these areas, and others. My goal is to teach you how to think about your beliefs, not what to think about them. I have my own set of beliefs that I have developed over the decades, which I do not attempt to hide or suppress; indeed, as a public intellectual I am regularly called upon to present and defend my beliefs in lectures, debates, interviews, articles, reviews, and opinion editorials. But in the classroom my goal is not to convince you of anything other than to think about your beliefs. I am often asked “why should we believe you?” My answer: “You shouldn’t.” Be skeptical, even of skeptics.

Finally, I explained that the goal of the course was parallel to the goal of the overall skeptical movement (as I see it anyway):

The Goals of the Skeptical Movement

  1. Debunking. There’s a lot of bunk and someone needs to debunk it. Like the bunko squads of police departments busting scammers and con artists, skeptics bust myths.
  2. Understanding. It’s not enough to debunk the things that people believe. We also want to understand why they believe. Through understanding comes enlightenment.
  3. Enlightenment. The power of positive skepticism linked to reason, rationality, logic, empiricism, and science offers us a world wondrous and awe-inspiring enough.

If you want to teach your own course in Skepticism 101, or are already teaching such a course, I encourage you to go to our webpage and have a look and take what you need. All materials are free.

If you would like to support the Skepticism 101 project, please make a tax-deductible donation. We are happy to accept anything you can afford, but might I suggest a $100 donation or even an automatically recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10?

In appreciation to all those who have already help support the Skepticism 101 project.

Recommended Reading

26 Responses to “How to Learn to Think Like a Scientist
(Without Being a Geek)

  1. Trimegistus says:

    This is a wonderful idea!

  2. Justin P. says:

    Sherm, this is fantastic and I’m happy to support this. Its objective, non-elitist and waters the roots of skepticism. If I were a delusional asshat, I would have prayed to invisible beings for you by now and stereo-typically asked God to bless you. But I’m not, so good job!

  3. Frank says:

    Dear Michael,
    For all your protestation that you are seeking to teach students how to think, not what to think, you make some fairly dogmatic assertions or assumptions – about what is ,bunk, .

    I find it remarkable that the top ten beliefs you seek to debunk seem specifically to relate to Christianity.
    Could one be forgiven for thinking the agenda is not rational/scientific but theological?

    And – when considering the other topic areas, will serious consideration be encouraged to carefully review the actual data and evidence presented by the proponents? (Sometimes I get the feeling that Scepticism is more a movement than a methodology, more a fest for the faithful than a challenge to challenge – and that is a shame – it defeats the intent.)

    With best intentions,

    Frank

    • Max says:

      The beliefs are ranked by popularity, and Christian beliefs happen to be the most popular in America. I’m not sure what science can say about the ones that aren’t testable.

    • Student says:

      What dogmatic assertion does he make? Especially with the added disclaimer of his position:

      [Why should we believe you?]

      “You shouldn’t.”-Shermer.

      Starting to look a little like your man is made of straw.

      And as this post isn’t about debunking Christianity, I’m sure you can be forgiven for making the assumption that non-believers must at all times explain their position in full and debunk at a moments notice these beliefs. There’s an entire backlog of Shermer, Novella and Prothero on this site alone debunking or critiquing specific claims of data and evidence by Christians, usually creationists.

      Yes, Skepticism is a movement, based around a methodology. The methodology is a dedication to reason and rationality, and the movement is aimed at furthering the understanding and utilisation of these by the general public, and increasing scientific literacy. That doesn’t defeat the intent at all: indeed, the methodology has no intent, the movement does. It’s not a test for the faithful, in fact, it’s not addressing you specifically in the first place! We’d simply have everyone hold their beliefs to a higher standard. That extends from religion to conspirational thinkers to cryptozoological believers.

  4. Phil says:

    @Frank, I don’t understand your conclusion that Michael seeks to use Skepticism 101 to debunk the 10 beliefs related to Christianity. Can you please point me to where he stated that?

    Thanks,
    Phil

  5. S R Gould says:

    @Frank – because the US is a predominantly Christian country, debunkable beliefs here will predominantly be Christian in nature. No doubt in a Muslim country, high up on the list would be thinga like Mohammed ascending to heaven, etc.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Can god be debunked? Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

      But more importantly all of this does not address the central issue of taking a skeptical look at matters of faith: can an evidence-based approach address such things? [You can find all sorts of matters of taste which science cannot address. E.g. "Is Opera better than Rap?" Sure, you can make some pseudo-arbitrary definitions of terms that result in something approaching a testable hypothesis (e.g. which type of music better lights up pleasure centers in human brains?) but you are answering a different question, now - it's not about taste, rather physiological response]

      The biggest danger of being a skeptic is being ‘hoist with our own petard’.

      • Student says:

        God in general cannot be debunked, no. But it can be shown to have not met it’s burden of proof as a claim for existance, which would leave us with no reason to believe it.

        I’ve heard the “Absence of proof is not proof of absence.” as a reasoning to justify belief in God many times before, and I’m reminded of a Shermer quote for that (Forgive me if it isn’t perfect, I might get the wording wrong).
        “Sorry, we don’t allow that kind of reasoning in science.”

        However, specific Gods are easily debunked. Christianity at this point, in fact, all Abrahmic religions have been effectively disproven. So disproving specific claims is something skeptics and scientists have done pretty well. Teaching people about how to address claims about existance seems not to have been.

      • Bad Boy Scientists says:

        @Student

        Wow. “[A]ll Abrahmic religions have been effectively disproven.”

        Science is a study of natural phenomena and has nothing to say about the super-natural and is unable to prove or disprove anything in that ‘realm’. So, we just cannot talk scientifically about god – or gods.

        God, religion and all that is not scientific. There is no sufficiently developed god hypothesis which provides enough description of the nature of god that allows us to design an experiment to test it. All notions of god have enough mysteries to wriggle out of the grasp of any evidence.

        I get tired of the arguments against the super-natural that are circular – basically like this:
        1) Science is the study of the natural world, but not the super-natural world;
        2) There is no scientific evidence for the super-natural world;
        3) ergo: Science disproves the existence of the super-natural world.

        It is as silly to say “Science can find no evidence to support god” as it is to say “Science can find no evidence that your doggie is the best doggie in the world.”

      • step back says:

        The neuro-biological basis for belief in God may be scientifically explorable. More specifically, why does the conscious “you” of many people experience a spooky feeling that there is another presence nearby (probably its part of the unconscious parts of the same brain and merely feels as if it is an other).

      • Bad Boy Scientists says:

        Remember all data is subject to interpretation. Even if a ‘god node’ of the brain is found, what does that prove to the mystical believer?

  6. step back says:

    My problem is with the ambiguity of the words “belief” and “believe”.

    If you ask me whether I “believe” in a certain short noise you make (be it the “God” noise, or the “Darwins Theory” noise, etc.) I’m not sure what conscious cognition of mine you are seeking for me to report on with a Yes or No answer.

    If you are asking if I believe that other people believe in this “God” thing (as a sample noise whose semantic essence is to be decoded by me), then because in my brain I do model other people as possessing this cognition of “God” and therefore I believe the cognition of “God” exists in their brains –and by virtue of that it also exists in my brain; then my answer is Yes.

    On the other hand, if you asking whether I believe that my cognition of what “God” is, is the same as other people’s cognition of what “God” is (what I think they think when they hear that noise string), then my answer is No.

    So do I “believe” in “God”? Yes and no. Both answers apply.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      This reminds me of a scene from some Novel – a man offers an alcoholic drink to another who refuses, saying “I don’t believe in alcohol.” the man offering the drink replies “I can asure you it exists.”

    • Student says:

      Of course, that would be to conflate two distinct ideas: The belief in God, or the concept of a God, as opposed to an extant God.

      Which is what the question was.

      • step back says:

        The question is just a bunch of bird chirping noises and then each bird in our flock determines for itself what to make of that bird song.

        I suspect that for many a bird in the human flock, the song stream: “Do you believe in God” is interpreted as a test: “Are you one of us (a true believer) or are you other?”.

        If you wish to increase the probability of remaining one with your flock (assume here a non-atheistic flock; for example a radical Muslim flock) then your answer will probably be, “Yes, Allah is Great”. And then your fellow flock mate will chirp back, “Blessed be his name”. Then you each score the other as likely to be a trustable flock member.

        Of course in THIS blog, where most of our “skeptical” flock mates are probably non-believers, if you want to increase the probability of not being ostracized then the correct answer is, “No, I do not believe”.

        (I think I’ll have re-watch part of the Chapman College debate between M. Sheremer and Deepak because Michael adopted a body posture which was not one with his surrounding flock of “collapsing wave function” babblers.)

  7. Roy Petersen says:

    32% believe in UFOs
    Unidentified Flying Objects. Do I believe I can see an object in the sky and not know what it is? Of course. Perhaps This one should say something like “alien spacecraft” or something.

    23% believe in witches.
    Well, there are many people who are called witches and they exist. Perhaps this one should also be reworded to specify that you mean witchcraft/magic?

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Way to apply skepticism to the evidence!

      When I teach astronomy, and get to UFOs, I tell the class “I see UFO’s all the time – sometimes I see them landing at the airport.” Hey, I don’t know what type of plane they are so they are not identified to ME. This get a chuckle and reminds them to understand what the terms mean before using them.

    • tmac57 says:

      Also:

      more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred

      So what? This has happened to me,and yet I did not feel the need to ascribe any paranormality to it.So, maybe others have had similar experiences,and just chalked it up to coincidence,or to forseeable circumstances such as a sick or elderly relative dying.
      Followup questions are needed to clarify such ambiguous responses…no?

  8. Gabriel says:

    Frank,
    Shermer produces a list from a Harris poll that has 17 subjects and only 1 has any evidence what so ever. A claim with no evidence is bunk, no assertions necessary.
    Why do you “feel” that its a movement? The goals of the “movement” are listed in the article. No one is trying to fool you, take your suspicion and do something constructive with it.

  9. Matt says:

    Religion for the most part is outside the “realm” of science, as I think most people would agree. But when religion starts to make specific real world claims, it enters the world of science….and it often does. And every time without fail, science tears it to shreds. If there was a scientific hypothesis that made so many claims and which after many tests the total evidence for equalled zero, it would be discarded. Maybe even disproven some might say. Why doesn’t this apply to religion? Or am I looking at this all wrong?

    • Bad Boy Scientists says:

      Yes and no.
      Just because religion is so often wrong about sciency stuff doesn’t mean it is wrong about everything – a view held by virtually every education religious person. And many of us (skeptics) err in making that logical fallacy generalization – be it in religion, alternative medicine or cryptozoology.

      But more importantly, most reasonable people accept that ‘holy books’ are full of parables, metaphors and downright human errors. So it may not be a case of it being ‘wrong’ per se…

      **When Jesus spoke of a man who hired laborers to work his vineyard we know wasn’t really a man with a vineyard. No one disputes this one – so it is wise to start with it.

      **When Joshua stopped the Sun in the Sky non-fundamentalists chalk it up to either A) a miracle that is inadequately described because the people at the time lacked sufficient knowledge to comprehend the ‘true’ explanation or B) It is a parable of how their faith in God enabled them to do great things and none of it is to be taken literally.

      **When the flood flooded the Earth and Noah built the ark… again many educated Christians & Jews interpret this as a flood myth that has been adapted to make the point: God Takes Care of His Own. Some think that it’s an account of flooding the “known world” and saving the livestock and people. Only a fundamentalist would think the flood was literally true – and only a masochist argues with a fundamentalist ANYTHING (especially fundamentalist Star Wars fans! Yikes they’re the worst. A Parsec is a unit of distance people. Lucas effed up! Get over it!).

  10. Gabriel says:

    Bad Boy,

    So what you are saying is that even though a work may be ficticious, it doesn’t mean its wrong about everything? Totally agree and I don’t think any reasonable person would argue against that. And if you relegate God to the same level as Santa Claus, then yes maybe science has nothing to say about its existence. But as for the hypotheses that God created the world or that God answers prayers, I think its safe to say that they have been falisfied. If you want to play devil’s advocate and say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, that is fine, you are now entering the “realm” of unicorns and jedi knights not the supernatural. As far as we know, there is no such thing as super natural. Either way a god that has no affect on the natural world is as significant as a god that doesn’t exist. Like Sean Carroll has said, if a god can intervene in the natural world, those interventions would then become measurable. Hasn’t happened yet, and the “miralces” and unexplained phenomena that apologists and believers in the supernatural hide under are becoming fewer and fewer.

  11. Matt says:

    That’s the problem for me. These holy books are full of parables, metaphors and so on, and as time goes on they are becoming almost entirely so. It’s the classic God of the gaps. Science proves something wrong and it suddenly becomes a metaphor. “We’ve reinterpreted it, and as it turns out it wasn’t meant to be literal”. They weren’t wrong….per se? Pfft. For the most part, they definitely were just plain wrong.

    This might not say anything about the existence of a God, but it speaks volumes about religion. The interventionist Gods of most religions have, I think, been falsified. They’re clearly manmade as is the religion that follows them.