Psychics and ESP (September 16-20)

Our topic this week is a popular one: psychic phenomena. Let’s start with a review of the whole psychic thing with a Wikipedia summary. Note that the concept is very broad, from self-proclaimed prophets to spurious spoon-benders. When examining psychic claims, always look for legitimate experiments (not testimonials). The experiments must be blinded and repeatable by other examiners. So far no psychic has met this standard.

The psychic technique of cold reading has long fascinated me. A good psychic is an excellent social psychologist, with a command of human nature that is astonishing. read about the Barnum Effect for more information on how cold reading (and other practices) take advantage of our wishful thinking, vanity, and fears.

Check out this psychic’s predictions for 2019. How did she do? Check out this list of way-obvious 2019 predictions. (“I also feel an earthquake and I see it in an Asian country …”)

Amy introduced me to YouTuber Shane Dawson and his conspiracy videos. Here’s one of his most popular presentations. I can’t tell yet what his positions are, but he is entertaining and full of information (and misinformation). His 911 analysis has serious flaws.

[Items we used this week in class: Patricia Steere statement on IMDb. John Edward reading. Cold reading analysis.]

Nonsense in the News —

Tensions are appearing between QAnon believers and Trump re-election campaigners. It looks like the Trump people don’t want the craziness rubbing off on them. Ironically, they’ve been covertly encouraging Q fans since the start of the phenomenon.

A Florida psychic was just sentence to a prison term and fined $1.6 million for being a low-life scammer. Of course, it is all a scam, but this one was briefly quite successful in draining money from the naive.

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Conspiracy theories! (September 9-13)

We will start our week with the last half of the Behind the Curve documentary, finish our discussions of the framework for distinguishing science from pseudoscience, and then launch into conspiracy theories.

For a grim reminder of the social, civic and culture dangers of at least some conspiracy theories, please read this recent piece from the Washington Post. We may be in the Golden Age of conspiracy theories — check out this Wikipedia list. Both of these links may give you inspiration for your research paper topic. Time Magazine has a top ten list of enduring conspiracy theories. We will have so many topics to choose from, including late-breaking conspiracies involving Jeffrey Epstein. Even the recent tragic mass shootings have been quickly enveloped in conspiracy theories. Why people are so vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and who creates them, will be our primary focus.

Here is the Research Topic form due on September 11. Here is the Short Paper #2 assignment due on September 13.

Nonsense in the News —

Here’s a sweet combination of the cryptic Falun Gong movement, the Epoch Times, President Trump and end-times prophecies. Yes, QAnon is in there too! We live in very complicated times.

You’ve got to see this video explaining how QAnon spoiled a school fundraiser. We live in deeply odd times.

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Science and pseudoscience (September 2-6)

The delightful month of September is upon us. Fall is coming — you’ll feel it in the cool mornings. We’ll start your first class of the month with a brief discussion of your experiences writing (and submitting) Short Paper #1, and then we’ll dive into the week’s material.

Pseudoscience is essentially a set of ideas claimed to be scientific, but either have no testable elements or fail to demonstrate any evidential support. Your textbook is one of the best resources for intellectually sorting out science from pseudoscience, part of the demarcation problem. Be ready for a full discussion of Occam’s Razor and its sometimes problematic application. We’ll then be ready for an analysis of the toolkit we use to identify pseudoscience.

It is difficult for me to choose a favorite pseudoscience, I have so many. Later in the semester we will cover some topics in more detail. In the last few years I’ve been involved in discussions of the elusive and magical Bigfoot, so we’ll probably spend some time with this imaginary relative. I also have some experiences with the Ancient Aliens topic. And then there’s the whole pretentious pseudoscientific framework built up around UFOs. We’ll add to the examples from your own interests at the end of the week.

Here is the Research Topic form due on September 11. Here is the Short Paper #2 assignment due on September 13.

Nonsense in the News —

Here’s that recent Chronicle of Higher Education story on the professor who showed that QAnon video we know so well to his English class, apparently without irony or pedagogical reason. We, of course, are using that same video as insight into a modern conspiracy cult.

It is no surprise to us that pseudoscience flourishes in social media. Just how pernicious it is takes me aback. Light some candles of reason out there!

The former “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani has been amplifying the Seth Rich Murder and QAnon conspiracies lately. He is President Trump’s personal attorney.

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Know your logical fallacies! (August 26-30)

Now we start assembling our tools for critical analysis of fringe ideas. I find a chart of logical fallacies to be useful when sorting out the philosophical underpinnings of arguments:

There are plenty of websites that discuss logical fallacies in detail. The Wikipedia List of Fallacies is a good guide to them. We certainly will not be discussing all of them! So many ways to go wrong.

Confirmation bias is a persistent error that we all commit at some point. Since it appears from a combination of wishful thinking and world views, it is difficult to recognize, let alone sort out. Think of the various ways you may participate in this most human of thinking mistakes.

Another common cognitive fallacy is the Fundamental Attribution Error. It has an unfamiliar title, but you’ll sadly recognize it when you see the examples.

Combine what you learn from these websites with our weekly reading in the textbook and you’ll be Junior Philosophers ready for any dorm argument!

[Here’s a link to the latest Chapman Paranormal Beliefs survey we talked about on Monday. Short Paper #1 assigned – based on this video.]

Nonsense in the News —

Here’s a useful checklist recently produced by Brian Dunning of Skeptoid for discerning science from pseudoscience.

Here’s an analysis of the very strange relationship that has developed between a Chinese dissident news site (The Epoch Times), QAnon, and President Trump.

Maybe the Trump Presidential Campaign team is getting nervous about its support from the QAnon community?

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How to think about the weird, strange and wonderful (August 21 & 23)

I call this a course on “nonsense” for a reason: I am a skeptic by personality and my scientific profession. I support explanations of natural and historical events that are the simplest and best fit the available evidence (using the principle of Occam’s Razor when appropriate). I encourage full and robust discussions on all topics of interest, and I am open to being shown I am wrong. (As a working scientist, I am accustomed to being told by the public exactly how and why I am wrong … especially on evolution, climate change and Bigfoot!)

In this course and the following web text, I will pose many provocative questions and refer you to the broadest range of literature I can find. Please keep in mind, though, my own position and its inherent biases. For example, I am convinced that the modern theory of evolution is the best explanation for life’s diversity, that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old (and it’s spherical, for goodness sakes), that the Holocaust was an attempted extermination of Jews in which six million were murdered, that climate change is currently being driven by anthropogenic warming, that on September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked American passenger jets and flew them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and that vaccines do not cause autism. I will always entertain alternative ideas, debating them on their merits, and student work will always be evaluated on the rigor of its analysis, not its conclusions. This is a course in critical thinking, not indoctrination.

That said, off we go into the world of nonsense!

Let’s start our links with a few general resources you will want throughout the semester. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has many useful sections, including articles and an index to their magazine (Skeptical Inquirer– I have many years of back issues).

The Skeptics Society is also an excellent resource for sorting out sense and nonsense. They publish Skeptic magazine and other items.

There are dozens of other major websites which take a skeptical viewpoint on popular topics. We will cite most of them as we cover particular topics. For now, though, you might want to visit the National Center for Science Education (“defending the teaching of evolution and climate science” — my heroes), the Encyclopedia of American Loons, and the The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

I am a big fan of podcasts, all of which I download from iTunes (although I’ll link you below to their host pages). Along with news and general science podcasts, I enjoy The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, produced by the authors of our textbook, and Science Vs. My guilty pleasures include: The Gralien Report, Skeptiko, The Higherside Chats, and the always delightfully arrogant Answers in Genesis.

As for YouTube, I’m a slave to their clever algorithm. When I’m choosing channels, I like SciManDan, the hyperbolic bleach-drinking QAnon apologist Destroying the Illusion, and Center for Inquiry. Most of the time, though, I just surf delightfully random nonsense videos. (There are many!)

We will begin to highlight “nonskeptical” (credulous?) webpages next week. You’ve probably found plenty on your own!

[Here’s the video of the bird/bunny perceptual puzzle we saw on Friday. Of course, you’ll also want the link to the Jeffrey Epstein EVP interview.]

Nonsense in the News —

Here’s an excellent Washington Post article on why “science is the killer app“, yet so often its claims are denied by the American public.

This short BBC clip explores how the Flat Earth community is utterly dependent on YouTube videos. This is true for many other delusions as well.

The latest Gallup poll shows 40% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. In other words, they believe an evolutionary history of millions of years is a lie or a massive error on the part of the vast majority of earth and life scientists.

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