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Topic
Professional
“Pure intellectual stimulation that can be popped into
the [audio or video player] anytime.”
—Harvard Magazine
Skepticism 101
“Passionate, erudite, living legend lecturers. Academia’s
best lecturers are being captured on tape.”
—The Los Angeles Times
“A serious force in American education.”
—The Wall Street Journal
Subtopic
Thinking Skills
Skepticism 101: How to
Think like a Scientist
Course Guidebook
Professor Michael Shermer
Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University
Professor Michael Shermer is Adjunct Professor at Claremont
Graduate University and Chapman University, founding
publisher of Skeptic magazine, and executive director of the
Skeptics Society. He holds an M.A. in Experimental Psychology
and a Ph.D. in the History of Science. Professor Shermer has
been interviewed for numerous documentaries and appeared
as a skeptic of extraordinary claims on such television shows
as 20/20, Dateline NBC, and Unsolved Mysteries. His books
include The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics
and Conspiracies and Why People Believe Weird Things:
Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.
Professor Photo: © Jeff Mauritzen - inPhotograph.com.
Cover Image: © Rook/age fotostock.
Course No. 9388 © 2013 The Teaching Company.
PB9388A
Guidebook
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Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,
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(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of
The Teaching Company.
Michael Shermer, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor
Claremont Graduate University
and Chapman University
P
rofessor Michael Shermer is Adjunct Professor
at Claremont Graduate University and
Chapman University. He is also the founding
publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com),
the executive director of the Skeptics Society,
a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the host of the Skeptics
Distinguished Science Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology.
Professor Shermer received his B.A. in Psychology from Pepperdine
University; his M.A. in Experimental Psychology from California State
University, Fullerton; and his Ph.D. in the History of Science from Claremont
Graduate University. He teaches a transdisciplinary course for Ph.D. students
at Claremont Graduate University entitled Evolution, Economics, and the
Brain and an honors course for undergraduates at Chapman University. He
has been a college professor since 1979, also teaching psychology, evolution,
and the history of science at Occidental College; California State University,
Los Angeles; and Glendale Community College. As a public intellectual,
Professor Shermer regularly contributes opinion editorials, book reviews,
and essays to The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature,
and other publications. He has appeared on such television shows as The
Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline NBC, Charlie Rose, Larry King Live, The
Phil Donahue Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Unsolved Mysteries as
a skeptic of weird and extraordinary claims. He also has been interviewed
for countless science and history documentaries aired on PBS, A&E, the
Discovery Channel, HISTORY, the Science Channel, and TLC. Professor
Shermer was the cohost and coproducer of the 13-hour ABC Family
television series Exploring the Unknown.
Professor Shermer’s latest book is The Believing Brain: From Ghosts
and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and
i
Reinforce Them as Truths. His previous book, The Mind of the Market, is
on evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and neuroeconomics.
He also authored Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case against
Intelligent Design and Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the
Unknown, about how the mind works and how thinking goes wrong. His book
The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and
Follow the Golden Rule is on the evolutionary origins of morality and how
to be good without God. He wrote a biography, In Darwin’s Shadow, about
the life and science of the codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel
Wallace. Professor Shermer also wrote The Borderlands of Science, about
the fuzzy land between science and pseudoscience, and Denying History,
on Holocaust denial and other forms of pseudohistory. His book How We
Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God presents his theory on
the origins of religion and why people believe in God. Professor Shermer’s
most famous book is Why People Believe Weird Things, on pseudoscience,
superstitions, and other confusions of our time.
According to the late Stephen Jay Gould (from his foreword to Why People
Believe Weird Things), “Michael Shermer, as head of one of America’s
leading skeptic organizations, and as a powerful activist and essayist in the
service of this operational form of reason, is an important figure in American
public life.” ■
ii
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION
Professor Biography ............................................................................i
Course Scope .....................................................................................1
LECTURE GUIDES
LECTURE 1
The Virtues of Skepticism ...................................................................4
LECTURE 2
Skepticism and Science ................................................................... 11
LECTURE 3
Mistakes in Thinking We All Make ....................................................20
LECTURE 4
Cognitive Biases and Their Effects ...................................................28
LECTURE 5
Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life ......................................................37
LECTURE 6
The Neuroscience of Belief ..............................................................45
LECTURE 7
The Paranormal and the Supernatural .............................................53
LECTURE 8
Science versus Pseudoscience .......................................................62
LECTURE 9
Comparing SETI and UFOlogy .........................................................70
LECTURE 10
Comparing Evolution and Creationism .............................................79
iii
Table of Contents
LECTURE 11
Science, History, and Pseudohistory ................................................87
LECTURE 12
The Lure of Conspiracy Theories .....................................................95
LECTURE 13
Inside the Modern Cult ...................................................................102
LECTURE 14
The Psychology of Religious Belief ................................................ 111
LECTURE 15
The God Question .......................................................................... 119
LECTURE 16
Without God, Does Anything Go?...................................................127
LECTURE 17
Life, Death, and the Afterlife ...........................................................135
LECTURE 18
Your Skeptical Toolkit......................................................................143
SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIAL
Glossary .........................................................................................151
Bibliography ....................................................................................166
iv
Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist
Scope:
A
2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans yielded the results shown
in the following table in response to the prompt “Please indicate for
each one if you believe in it or not.”
Belief
God
Percent Believing
82
Miracles
76
Heaven
75
Jesus is God or the Son of God
73
Angels
72
Survival of the Soul after Death
71
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
70
Hell
61
The Virgin Birth (of Jesus)
61
The Devil
60
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
45
Ghosts
42
Creationism
40
UFOs
32
Astrology
26
Witches
23
Reincarnation
20
For many of us, the fact that more people believe in angels and the devil
than believe in the theory of evolution is disturbing. Yet such results match
similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past
several decades, including internationally. For example, a 2006 Reader’s
Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said they could
read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said
that they had had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred,
1
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 that they had seen a ghost, and nearly a third said
that they believed that near-death experiences are evidence for an afterlife.
Although the specific percentages of belief in the supernatural and the
paranormal across countries and decades vary slightly, the numbers remain
fairly consistent that the majority of people hold some form of paranormal or
supernatural belief. Alarmed by such figures and concerned about the dismal
state of science education and its role in fostering belief in the paranormal,
the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted its own extensive survey
of beliefs in both the paranormal and pseudoscience, concluding: “Such
beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of
science and the scientific process.”
Part of the problem may be that 70 percent of Americans still do not
understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping
probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. One solution,
then, is to teach how science works in addition to what science knows.
Studies show that there is almost no correlation between science knowledge
(facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs, but that when people are
taught how science works and how to think like scientists, they are better
able to evaluate the validity of extraordinary claims. The key to attenuating
superstition and belief in the supernatural is in teaching how science works,
not just what science has discovered.
Belief systems are powerful, pervasive, and enduring. This course
synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why
we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives. In this course, we are
interested in understanding not just why people believe weird things or why
people believe this or that claim but why people believe anything at all. The
thesis of the course is straightforward:
Scope
We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional,
and psychological reasons in the context of environments created
by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after
2
forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify, and rationalize them
with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational
explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow.
We might call this process belief-dependent realism, where our
perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we
hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but
our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any
given time.
The brain is a belief engine. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look
for and find confirming evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an
emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates
the process of reinforcing them; round and round the process goes in a
positive feedback loop of converting beliefs into truths. This course will
teach you how to think and reason like a scientist in order to give you the
necessary tools for evaluating claims and determining whether or not a belief
you hold is provisionally true, very likely false, or somewhere in between.
3
The Virtues of Skepticism
Lecture 1
S
kepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the
validity of any and all claims. Today, we are in dire need of skepticism
because there has been a resurgence of superstition and magical thinking
in our society and elsewhere in the world. Skepticism can counterbalance them
by emphasizing the value of rational inquiry. In this course, we’ll explore
many claims that merit our skepticism, such as belief in the paranormal and the
supernatural, creationism, Holocaust revisionism, various conspiracy theories,
and more. In the end, we’ll find that skepticism is a useful way of thinking to
enable us to discover how the world really works.
Lecture 1: The Virtues of Skepticism
What Is Skepticism?
 We define skepticism as the application of science and reason to
test the validity of all claims. It is not a position that you stake
out ahead of time and stick to no matter what. For example, many
people who were initially skeptical of global warming are now
believers, based on the facts that are available at the moment.
4

It’s important to note the phrase “at the moment” here. Conclusions
in science and skepticism are provisional. It’s acceptable to change
your mind in science if the evidence changes. The important
question to ask is: What are the facts in support of or against a
particular claim?

A popular notion holds that skeptics are closed-minded or cynical,
but in principle, they aren’t. Skeptics are curious but cautious. They
believe many things—the germ theory of disease, the big bang
theory of the universe, and so on—as long as there is reason and
evidence to believe.

It’s not that skeptics believe nothing. In fact, they’re even prepared
to believe things for which hard evidence is still unavailable, such
as the existence of aliens in the cosmos, which statistical probability
© Creatas/Thinkstock.
We remember a chance meeting with a friend in another city because our brains
have evolved to notice unusual patterns, not to compute probabilities of such
events happening after the fact.
suggests is almost inevitable. But most skeptics don’t believe that
aliens have visited Earth because no plausible proof has been put
forth that they have.

Being a skeptic means being rational and empirical: thinking
and seeing before believing. Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall
find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” Having an open mind
means finding the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy,
between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit
of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical
new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism
is about finding that balance.

One mission of skeptics is to address specific claims that scientists
are typically too busy in their own fields to address. Such claims
range from fire walking to creationism to Holocaust revisionism.
5
Scientists and historians sometimes fail in debates with proponents
of alternative beliefs—not because they don’t know their fields, but
because they aren’t skilled in rhetoric and sophistry.

Starting in the 2000s, the skeptical movement investigated a series of
beliefs and claims with serious implications for science and society,
including questions about the relationship between vaccinations and
autism, alternative/complementary medicine versus science-based
medicine, longevity and the question of whether we’re really living
longer, the notion that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11
attacks, and most recently, the claim that the Obama administration
orchestrated the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
o In these cases, skeptics took on popular misunderstandings,
dangerous rumors, and deliberate scams by applying logic
through the scientific method—and proved the claims dubious
if not false.
Lecture 1: The Virtues of Skepticism
o
Although it’s almost impossible to eliminate misinformation
entirely, skeptics believe that confronting and correcting it can
help to neutralize its pernicious effects.
Why People Believe Weird Things
 What do skeptics define as a “weird thing”? Generally, a weird
thing is one of the following: (1) a claim that is unaccepted by
most people in a particular field of study, (2) a claim that is either
logically impossible or highly unlikely, or (3) a claim for which the
evidence is largely anecdotal and uncorroborated.
6

Most of us think that only other people believe weird things; we
certainly don’t because we’re too smart. But in fact, many smart
people believe weird things, and they do so because they are skilled
at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

Most of the time, we come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons
having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning
and everything to do with genes, parents, siblings, peers, education,
culture, and so on.
o
Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh
them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational
belief, regardless of what we previously believed.
o
Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored
filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and
prejudices we have accumulated throughout our lifetimes. We
then sort through the body of data and select the points that
are most confirming of what we already believe and ignore or
rationalize away those that are disconfirming.
Intelligence and Belief
 As we said, intelligence doesn’t seem to be a potent defense against
weird beliefs. Although there is some evidence that more intelligent
people are slightly less likely to believe in some superstitions and
paranormal beliefs, overall, conclusions are equivocal and limited.
o On the one hand, a study conducted in 1974 with Georgia high
school seniors found that those who scored higher on an IQ
test were significantly less superstitious than students with
lower IQ scores. And a 1980 study by psychologists James
Alcock and L. P. Otis found that belief in various paranormal
phenomena was correlated with lower critical thinking skills.
o
On the other hand, in his review of the literature in one of the
best books on this subject (Believing in Magic), psychologist
Stuart Vyse concludes that although the relationship between
intelligence and belief holds for some groups, it can be just the
opposite in others, such as the New Age movement.

From this kind of research, it seems that intelligence is independent
of belief. It may or may not lead people to be more or less skeptical
of weird things. But it does enable people to better defend beliefs in
weird things that they came to for reasons other than intelligence.

Another problem is that smart people may be smart in only one field
or in one way. We say that their intelligence is domain specific. The
field of intelligence studies has witnessed a longstanding debate
7
about whether the brain is domain general or domain specific; the
answer probably is that it’s both.
o Harvard marine biologist Barry Fell serves as an example
of how being smart in one field does not make one smart in
another. Fell jumped fields into archaeology and wrote a
bestselling book called America B.C. about all the people who
discovered America before Columbus.
o
Lecture 1: The Virtues of Skepticism

Unfortunately, he was woefully unaware that archaeologists
had already considered his different hypotheses but rejected
them for lack of credible evidence.
In many ways, the independent relationship between intelligence
and beliefs is not unlike that between gender and beliefs. A number
of studies have found that women hold more superstitious beliefs
and accept more paranormal phenomena as real than men. But
more men seem attracted to such beliefs as creationism, Holocaust
revisionism or denial, UFOlogy and the presence of aliens, and
conspiracy theories. Thus, although gender is related to the target of
one’s beliefs, it appears to be unrelated to the process of believing.
Education and Belief
 Psychologists Stuart and Lucille Blum found a negative correlation
between education and superstition; in other words, as education
increased, superstitious beliefs decreased. But education doesn’t
necessarily protect people from weird beliefs either.
8

Professors Laura Otis and James Alcock showed that college
professors are more skeptical of the paranormal than either college
students or the general public (with the latter two groups showing
the same level of belief), but that among college professors, there
was variation in the types of beliefs held, with English professors
more likely to believe in ghosts, ESP, and fortune telling.

Another study found, not surprisingly, that natural and social
scientists were more skeptical of the paranormal than their
colleagues in the arts and humanities; psychologists were the most
skeptical of all—perhaps because they understand the psychology
of belief and how easy it is to be fooled.

Psychology professors Richard Walker, Steven Hoekstra, and
Rodney Vogl discovered that there was no relationship between
science education and belief in the paranormal among three groups
of science students at three different colleges. They concluded:
“Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific
knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims.”
Combining Skepticism with Education and Intelligence
 The psychologist David Perkins conducted an interesting
correlational study, in which he found a strong positive correlation
between intelligence (measured by a standard IQ test) and the
ability to give reasons for taking a point of view and defending
that position; he also found a strong negative correlation between
intelligence and the ability to consider other alternatives.

In other words, the smarter people are, the better they are able to
defend their own beliefs as true and the less open they are to the truth
of other people’s beliefs. Smart people are better at rationalizing
their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence, they
are less open to considering other positions.

This is a lesson for us all: It’s not enough to be smart and educated;
you have to know how to use your intelligence and education in a
particular way that leads you to a better understanding of how the
world works. That’s what skepticism is all about!
Important Terms
domain-general intelligence: An individual’s ability to acquire and use
knowledge to analyze various situations and conditions, find solutions to
problems, and so on.
domain-specific intelligence: An individual’s knowledge in a specific field,
such as psychology, history, and so on.
9
skepticism: The rigorous application of science and reason to test the
validity of any and all claims.
Suggested Reading
Alcock and Otis, “Critical Thinking and Belief in the Paranormal.”
Blum and Blum, “Do’s and Don’ts.”
Collins and Pinch, The Golem.
Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So.
Huff, How to Lie with Statistics.
Olson, Science Deified and Science Defied.
Randi, Flim-Flam!
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things.
Sulloway, Born to Rebel.
Taubes, Bad Science.
Lecture 1: The Virtues of Skepticism
Questions to Consider
1. What is skepticism?
2. What is the physics behind fire walking?
3. What does research tell us about the relationship between intelligence/
education and belief?
10
Skepticism and Science
Lecture 2
I
n the last lecture, we examined skepticism and what it means to be a
skeptic, which as we saw, equates to a particular way of thinking about
things, especially weird things. In this lecture, we’ll look more closely at
the most important way of thinking ever invented—science. We’ll learn the
scientific method, explore the tension between skepticism and credulity, and
look at the demarcation problem—the need to find a criterion to distinguish
between empirical science and pseudoscience.
A Skeptical Analysis of Miracles
 You may have had the experience of reaching for the phone to call
a friend, only to have the phone ring and find that your friend is
calling you. Or you may have had a dream that seemed to come true
shortly after you had it, perhaps even a dream about the death of a
loved one. Are such occurrences miracles?

As skeptics, we analyze claims of miracles by starting with a
definition: A miracle is an event with million-to-one odds of
occurring. Intuitively, those odds seem rare enough to earn
the moniker.

Let’s assume that we’re awake for 16 hours a day and assign a
number of 1 bit of data per second flowing into our senses as we go
about our day. That nets us 57,600 bits of data per day, or 1,728,000
per month.
o Even assuming that 99.9999 percent of those bits are totally
unremarkable (thus, we filter them out or forget them), that still
leaves 1.7 “miracles” per month.
o
Thanks to selective memory and the confirmation bias, we will
remember only those few astonishing coincidences and forget
the vast sea of meaningless data.
11
Lecture 2: Skepticism and Science

We can employ a similar rough calculation to explain death
premonition dreams.
o The average person has about 5 dreams per night, or 1,825
dreams per year.
o
If we remember only 1/10 of our dreams, then we recall 182.5
dreams per year.
o
There are about 300 million Americans, who produce 54.7
billion remembered dreams per year.
o
Sociologists tell us that each of us knows about 150 people
fairly well, thus producing a network social grid of 45 billion
personal relationship connections.
o
With an annual death rate of 2.4 million Americans per year
(all ages, all causes), it is inevitable that some of those 54.7
billion remembered dreams will be about some of these 2.4
million deaths among the 300 million Americans and their 45
billion relationship connections.
Skepticism and Science
 These back-of-the-envelope calculations are just the start of the
skeptical analysis of a claim. The many tools of science are also part
of our skeptical toolkit. In fact, modern skepticism and its insistence
on questioning everything are embodied in the scientific method.
That method involves gathering data to test natural explanations for
natural phenomena.

12
Skepticism’s questioning outlook is a vital part of science, which
we can define as: a set of methods to describe and interpret observed
or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at testing hypotheses
and building theories.
o In this definition, “describe and interpret” captures the idea that
science is not about just gathering facts but interpreting them.
The facts never “speak for themselves.”


o
“Observed or inferred phenomena” accounts for the fact
that we can see some things in nature, such as elephants and
stars, but we must infer other things, such as the evolution of
elephants and stars.
o
“Past or present” tells us that science can be used to
understand phenomena that occur both today and in the past.
Historical sciences include cosmology, paleontology, geology,
archaeology, and history itself.
o
“Testing hypotheses” means that for something to be truly
scientific, it must be testable, such that we may confirm it as
probably true or disconfirm it as probably false.
o
“Building theories” means that the aim of science is to explain
the world by constructing plausible theories from numerous
tested hypotheses.
Defining the scientific method is not so easy, but most scientists
agree that the following elements are involved in thinking
scientifically:
o Induction: forming a hypothesis by drawing general
conclusions from existing data
o
Deduction: making specific predictions based on the hypotheses
o
Observation: the process of gathering data, driven by
hypotheses that tell us what to look for in nature
o
Verification: the process of testing predictions against further
observations to confirm or disprove the initial hypotheses
Through the scientific method, we may discover facts about
the world. A fact is defined as a conclusion confirmed to such
an extent that it would be reasonable to offer provisional assent.
All facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge. For
13
Lecture 2: Skepticism and Science
this reason, science is not a “thing” but a method that leads to
provisional conclusions.

A theory may be contrasted with a construct, that is, a nontestable
statement to account for a set of observations. The living organisms
on Earth may be accounted for by the statement “God made them”
or the statement “They evolved.” The first statement is a construct;
the second, a theory.

Through the scientific method, we aim for objectivity—
basing conclusions on external validation—and we avoid
mysticism—basing conclusions on personal insights that exclude
external validation.

Science is based on rationalism—basing conclusions on logic and
evidence—and helps us avoid dogmatism—basing conclusions on
authority rather than logic and evidence. Dogmatic conclusions are
not necessarily invalid, but they introduce other questions: How
did the authorities come by their conclusions? Were they guided by
science or some other means?
The Tension between Skepticism and Credulity
 Despite these built-in mechanisms, science remains subject to
problems and fallacies, ranging from inadequate mathematical
notation to wishful thinking. But as the philosopher of science
Thomas Kuhn noted, the “essential tension” in science is between
total commitment to the status quo and blind pursuit of new ideas.
The paradigm shifts and revolutions in science depend on proper
balancing of these opposing impulses.
14

When enough members of the scientific community (particularly
those in positions of power) are willing to abandon orthodoxy in
favor of a (formerly) radical new theory, then and only then can a
paradigm shift occur.

Charles Darwin is a good example of a scientist who negotiated
the essential tension between skepticism and credulity.
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Historian of science Frank
Sulloway identifies three
characteristics in Darwin’s
thinking that helped him find
this balance: (1) respect for
others’ opinions, combined
with a willingness to
challenge authorities; (2)
close attention to negative
evidence; and (3) generous
use of the work of others.
One need not understand gravity

The essential tension in and the laws governing the motion
of the planets to evaluate astrology;
dealing with “weird things” the important question to ask is:
is between being so skeptical Does it work?
that revolutionary ideas pass
you by and being so open-minded that flimflam artists take you in.
Balance can be found by answering a few basic questions:
o What is the quality of the evidence for the claim?
o
What are the background and credentials of the person making
the claim?
o
Does the thing work as claimed?
The Demarcation Problem
 The need to find a criterion to distinguish between empirical science
and pseudoscience is sometimes called the demarcation problem or
the boundary problem. The philosopher Karl Popper first identified
this problem and declared falsifiability as the ultimate criterion
of demarcation.

Whether a particular claim should be put into the set labeled
“science” or “pseudoscience” depends not only on the claim per
se but also on other factors, such as the proponent of the claim,
the methodology, the history of the claim, attempts to test it, the
coherence of the theory with other theories, and so on. It’s thus
15
Lecture 2: Skepticism and Science
useful to expand our heuristic into three categories: normal science,
pseudoscience, and borderlands science.
o “Normal science” refers to claims that are fully accepted
as provisionally true by most scientists in a field. Examples
include heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, big
bang cosmology, and plate tectonics.
o
“Pseudoscience” refers to claims that are fully rejected as very
likely false by most scientists in a field. Examples include
creationism, holocaust revisionism, alien abductions, and UFOs.
o
“Borderlands science” refers to claims that are still controversial
and undetermined as true or false by most scientists in a field.
Examples include string theory, theories of consciousness, grand
theories of economics, and some alternative medical practices.

Because membership in these categories is provisional, it is
possible for theories to be moved and reevaluated with changing
evidence. Indeed, many normal science claims were once either
pseudoscience or borderlands science.

The difference between borderlands science and pseudoscience
(or non-science) is that the practitioners of borderlands science
are professionals who publish in peer-reviewed journals and try to
devise ways to test their theories and falsify their hypotheses.
A Pragmatic Solution to the Demarcation Problem
 From a pragmatic perspective, science is what scientists do. The
Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman once explained
the endeavors of scientists by outlining the three steps in the
discovery of a new law of nature: (1) guess the law, (2) compute the
consequences of the guess, and (3) compare the computation results
to nature or experiment. If the results disagree with experiment, the
guess is wrong.
16

When discussing pseudoscience, we should bear in mind that
those whom scientists and skeptics label as pseudoscientists do not
consider themselves or their work as such. In their minds (to the
extent we have access to them), they are cutting-edge scientists on
the verge of a scientific breakthrough.

The Princeton historian of science Michael D. Gordin notes,
“Individual scientists (as distinct from the monolithic ‘scientific
community’) designate a doctrine a ‘pseudoscience’ only when
they perceive themselves to be threatened—not necessarily by the
new ideas themselves, but by what those ideas represent about the
authority of science….”

Indeed, most scientists consider creationism to be pseudoscience,
not because its proponents are doing bad science—they are not
doing science at all—but because they threaten science education in
America, they breach the wall separating church and state, and they
confuse the public about the nature of evolutionary theory.

Here, perhaps, is a practical criterion for resolving the demarcation
problem: the conduct of scientists as reflected in the pragmatic
usefulness of an idea. Does the revolutionary idea generate interest
on the part of working scientists for adoption in research programs,
produce new lines of research, lead to new discoveries, or influence
existing hypotheses, theories, models, paradigms, or worldviews?
If not, chances are it is pseudoscience. We can demarcate science
from pseudoscience less by what science is and more by what
scientists do.

This demarcation criterion of usefulness has the advantage of
being bottom up instead of top down, egalitarian instead of elitist,
nondiscriminatory instead of prejudicial. Let science consumers in
the marketplace of ideas determine what constitutes good science,
starting with working scientists themselves and filtering through
science editors, educators, and readers.
17
Important Terms
construct: A nontestable statement to account for a set of observations.
deduction: A specific prediction based on a hypothesis.
dogmatism: Basing conclusions on authority rather than logic and evidence.
fact: A conclusion confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to
offer provisional assent.
hypothesis: A testable statement accounting for a set of observations.
induction: The formation of a hypothesis by drawing general conclusions
from existing data.
miracle: An event with million-to-one odds of occurring.
mysticism: Basing conclusions on personal insights that exclude external
validation.
Lecture 2: Skepticism and Science
objectivity: Basing conclusions on external validation.
observation: The process of gathering data, driven by hypotheses that tell us
what to look for in nature.
rationalism: Basing conclusions on logic and evidence.
science: A set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or
inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of
knowledge that is open to rejection or confirmation.
scientific method: The use of the hypothetico-deductive method, that is, the
process of (1) putting forward a hypothesis, (2) conjoining it with a statement
of initial conditions, (3) deducing from the two a prediction, and (4) finding
whether or not the prediction is fulfilled.
18
theory: A well-supported and well-tested hypothesis or set of hypotheses.
verification: The process of testing predictions against further observations
to confirm or disprove an initial hypothesis.
Suggested Reading
Collins and Pinch. The Golem.
Olson, Science Deified and Science Defied.
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things.
Sulloway, Born to Rebel.
Taubes, Bad Science.
Questions to Consider
1. What are science and the scientific method?
2. What is the difference between a theory and a construct?
3. What is the difference between objectivity and mysticism?
4. What is the difference between rationalism and dogmatism?
19
Mistakes in Thinking We All Make
Lecture 3
I
n our first two lectures, we considered skepticism and science as ways
of understanding the world and ourselves, and we saw how thinking
like a skeptic and a scientist can help us avoid falling for nonsense,
superstitions, or magical thinking. We also noted that the first principle of
skepticism is to think for yourself. In this lecture and the two that follow,
we’ll look at a number of thinking fallacies and biases that interfere with our
ability to reason clearly and rationally.
Lecture 3: Mistakes in Thinking We All Make
Feynman’s Principle and Hume’s Maxim
 In his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” this Nobel
physicist gave us a principle that should serve as our guide: “The
first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are
the easiest person to fool.” But this principle is not exactly new;
philosophers have understood for some time that humans are deeply
flawed thinkers.
20

In the 18th century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote
about what he called “consequent skepticism,” which recognizes
the “consequences” of our fallible senses but corrects them through
reason. He came up with what we might call Hume’s maxim: “A
wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Even more important is Hume’s foolproof analysis of miracles. He
asked the “what’s more likely” question: What’s more likely when
you hear a fantastic story about some miraculous event—that the
laws of nature were temporarily suspended or that those who think
something was miraculous are mistaken?

Combining Feynman’s principle with Hume’s maxim, we have
the foundations of clear thinking: Proportion your belief to the
evidence, don’t be fooled by fantastic stories, and always remember
that you are the easiest person to fool!

The person making an extraordinary claim has the burden of proof
in convincing others that his or her belief has more validity than the
one that is more universally accepted. In other words, you have to
lobby for your opinion to be heard and marshal experts on your side
to convince the majority to support your claim.

Another common mistake in thinking is the idea that if you
cannot explain something, it must be inexplicable and, therefore,
a true mystery of the paranormal. Even those who are more
reasonable sometimes think
that if the experts cannot
explain something, it must
be inexplicable.
o There are many genuine
unsolved mysteries in the
universe, and it is always
acceptable to express our
lack of understanding
about such phenomena.
o

The problem is that
most of us find it more
comforting to have
certainty, even if it
is premature, than to
live with unsolved or
unexplained mysteries.
In a democratic republic, we elect
officials to make decisions on
science and technological matters
that very few truly understand; a
successful democracy depends on
educated voters who know how to
think critically and skeptically.
One of the most common errors in thinking is called post hoc, ergo
propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”), or after-the-fact
21
© Ron Chapple Studios/Thinkstock.
Fallacies in Thinking
 A common way of being fooled or making mistakes is by
overestimating the power of anecdotes or stories, but anecdotes
are not data. Our tendency is to believe whatever we hear, and
anecdotes can be powerful belief engines, particularly about things
we are most concerned about, such as health or medical claims.
Lecture 3: Mistakes in Thinking We All Make
reasoning. At its basest level, this is a form of superstition, but even
scientific studies can fall prey to this fallacy. Statisticians remind
us, however, that correlation does not mean causation.

Accidental and non-causal correlations are sometimes call
coincidence, and in the world of the paranormal, coincidences
are often seen as deeply significant. Sometimes “synchronicity”
is invoked, as if some mysterious force were at work behind the
scenes. But reason and observation suggest that synchronicity is
most likely nothing more than the laws of probability at work, laws
about which some of us have a very poor understanding.

When dealing with events that seem unusual, we must also analyze
them for their representativeness of their class of phenomena. That
is, how likely is such a thing to occur given all the relevant factors?
o The Bermuda Triangle provides an interesting example. Those
who believe that there is something paranormal or supernatural
at work there tend to misrepresent the baseline rate of accidents
for the area.

22
o
In fact, far more shipping lanes run through the Bermuda
Triangle than surrounding areas; thus, accidents and
disappearances are more likely to happen in that area.
Ironically, the accident rate is actually lower in the Bermuda
Triangle than in surrounding areas.
o
We would all be well-advised to first thoroughly understand
probable worldly explanations before turning to otherworldly
ones. In other words, before we say that something is out of
this world, let’s first make sure that it is not in this world.
The ad ignorantiam fallacy involves an appeal to ignorance or lack
of knowledge, and it is related to the fallacies involving the burden
of proof and the unexplained versus the inexplicable; here, someone
argues that if you cannot disprove a claim, it must be true. But in
science, belief should come from positive evidence in support of a
claim, not lack of evidence for or against a claim.

One of the most common errors in thinking we all make and that
is on display in every political election is called ad hominem.
Literally translated, this means “to the man.” This fallacy redirects
the focus from thinking about the idea to thinking about the person
holding the idea.

Another common error in cognition is known as the either-or
fallacy, the fallacy of negation, or the false dilemma. Here, we tend
to dichotomize the world in such a manner that discrediting one
position forces the acceptance of the other. But it is not enough to
point out weaknesses in a theory. If your theory is superior, it must
explain both the “normal” data explained by the old theory and the
“anomalous” data not explained by the old theory.

Many times we find ourselves trapped in circular reasoning,
also known as the fallacy of redundancy, begging the question, or
tautology, which occurs when the conclusion or claim is merely a
restatement of one of the premises.
o Christian apologetics is filled with tautologies: Is there a God?
Yes. How do you know? Because the Bible says so. How do
you know the Bible is correct? Because it was inspired by God.
In other words, God is… because God is.

o
Science also seems to have its share of redundancies: What
is gravity? The tendency for objects to be attracted to one
another. Why are objects attracted to one another? Gravity. In
other words, gravity is… because gravity is.
o
The difference here, however, is that science is not relying on
authority for proof of gravity’s existence. Science has observed
gravity and devised highly accurate formulae to describe its
effects, as well as theories about why it occurs.
Reductio ad absurdum, sometimes called the slippery-slope
fallacy, is an attempted refutation of an argument by carrying it to
its apparently logical and often absurd conclusion. According to
23
this fallacy, if an argument’s apparent conclusions seem absurd,
then the argument must be false.
o This is not necessarily so, though sometimes pushing an argument
to its limits is a useful exercise in critical thinking. Often, this is
a way to discover whether a claim has validity, especially if an
experiment testing the actual reduction can be run.
o
A recent subset of this fallacy has come to be known as reductio
ad Hitlerum, in which one equates someone else’s belief with
Hitler and/or the Nazis, thereby gainsaying it by association
with evil. This fallacy can be found in discussions involving
politics, economics, or social issues.
Lecture 3: Mistakes in Thinking We All Make
Ideological Immunity, or the Planck Problem
 The Planck problem is not necessarily a fallacy in thinking but a
problem we all face in resisting change, especially fundamental
paradigm change. This problem relates to what the thinker Jay
Stuart Snelson called our “ideological immune system.” As Snelson
wrote, “Educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change
their most fundamental presuppositions.”
24

According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have
accumulated and the more well-founded their theories have
become, the greater the confidence they have in their ideologies.
The consequence of this, however, is that we build up “immunity”
against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones.

Historians of science call this the Planck problem after physicist
Max Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for
innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation
rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its
opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does
happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing
generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning.”

Psychologist David Perkins conducted an interesting study in
which he found a strong positive correlation between intelligence
(measured by a standard IQ test) and the ability to give reasons for
taking a point of view and defending that position; he also found a
strong negative correlation between intelligence and the ability to
consider other alternatives. That is, the higher the IQ, the greater
the potential for ideological immunity.

Ideological immunity is built into the scientific enterprise, where
it functions as a filter against potentially overwhelming novelty.
But in the end, history rewards those who are “right” (at least
provisionally). In astronomy, the Ptolemaic geocentric universe
was displaced by Copernicus’s heliocentric system. In biology,
Darwin’s evolution theory superseded creationist belief in the
immutability of species.
Spinoza’s Dictum
 It’s important for us not to become smug in our ability to reason and
think like scientists. These fallacies of thinking apply to everyone.

Most believers in the paranormal, the supernatural, and the
extraterrestrial are probably not hoaxers, con artists, or lunatics.
Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong
in some way. Thus, in talking to such believers, it’s important to
keep in mind the wise words of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher
Baruch Spinoza: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not
to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

That said, in addition to understanding why people believe what they
do, we need to be cognizant of the fact that ignorance and superstition
can spread if they gain too much currency, and this can lead to both
personal and political disasters. This is why clear thinking needs to
be defended and refreshed constantly by educated, open minds.
Important Terms
ad hominem: Literally, “to the man”; this fallacy of thinking places the focus
of inquiry on the person making the claim instead of on the claim itself. An
“ad hominem attack” is an attack on the person instead of the argument.
25
ad ignorantiam: An appeal to ignorance or the belief that if someone cannot
disprove a claim, then it must be true.
burden of proof: The principle in skeptical thinking that the burden of proof
is on the person making the claim and not on the recipients of the claim.
circular reasoning: Also known as the fallacy of redundancy or a tautology,
this is the process of attempting to prove a claim or bolster a belief by simply
restating it in other words.
Lecture 3: Mistakes in Thinking We All Make
either-or fallacy: Sometimes called the fallacy of negation or the false
dilemma, this is the attempt to set up a false choice between one claim and
another, such that if you can disprove the first claim, the second one must
be true. But this is not so; they could both be wrong. Positive evidence is
needed in favor of a belief, not just negative evidence against another
person’s belief.
Hume’s maxim: Observations by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher
David Hume, considered one of the greatest skeptical thinkers in history,
on the nature of belief, evidence, and miraculous claims: “A wise man
proportions his belief to the evidence,” and: “No testimony is sufficient to
establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood
would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”
post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Literally, “after this, therefore because of
this”; also known as after-the-fact reasoning. This thinking is, at its basest
form, superstition or magical thinking, connecting A to B when there is no
connection. In statistical analysis, it comes in the form of “correlation does
not mean causation.”
reductio ad absurdum: The attempted refutation of an argument by carrying
it to its apparently logical and often absurd conclusion. A recent subset of
this fallacy has come to be known as reductio ad Hitlerum, in which one
equates someone else’s belief or claim with Hitler and/or the Nazis, thereby
gainsaying it by association with evil.
26
Spinoza’s dictum: An observation by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher
Baruch Spinoza used as the motto of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic
magazine: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not
to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”
Suggested Reading
Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So.
Huff, How to Lie with Statistics.
Kusche, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved.
Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk.
Randi, Flim-Flam!
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things.
Vyse, Believing in Magic.
Questions to Consider
1. Why are anecdotes not reliable as sources of knowledge to confirm or
disconfirm a belief?
2. When someone makes a claim, who has the burden of proof, the
claimant to prove the claim or the receiver to disprove the claim?
3. Why is the unexplained not the same as the inexplicable?
4. Which of the logical fallacies most apply to you and to your friends and
colleagues? Are they the same fallacies or different ones?
27
Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
Lecture 4
W
Lecture 4: Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
hy is it that we all tend to see the world in a way that makes
our beliefs true and everyone else’s beliefs that differ from ours
false? The answer can be found in the study of cognitive biases.
In the last lecture, we considered a number of logical fallacies that lead
people to make bad arguments in favor of their beliefs. In this lecture, we’ll
look deeper into the brain at biases that are often subconscious. As we’ll
see, these cognitive biases shape how we interpret information that comes
through our senses and mold it to fit the way we want the world to be—but
not necessarily how it really is.
Confirmation Bias
 In the last lecture, we learned Feynman’s principle: “The first
principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the
easiest person to fool.” Our first cognitive bias is one that best
explains why we are so capable of fooling ourselves. This is the
confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek and find confirming
evidence in support of what we already believe and to ignore or
rationalize disconfirming evidence.
28

Confirmation bias is sometimes described as the power of
expectation. In a 1989 study by psychologists Bonnie Sherman
and Ziva Kunda, for example, subjects were presented with
evidence that both supported and contradicted a deeply held
belief. The results showed that the subjects recognized the validity
of the confirming evidence but were skeptical of the value of the
disconfirming evidence. Other studies have shown that subjects
fail to notice contradictory evidence or reinterpret it to favor their
preconceived beliefs.

Confirmation bias is particularly potent in political beliefs, most
notably the manner in which our belief filters allow in information
that confirms our political convictions and exclude information
that disconfirms those same convictions. Further, we tend to gather
information about the world through sources that we know gibe
well with our biases, which leads us to gather evidence in support
of our beliefs and ignore or filter out contrary evidence.
o In a study on political beliefs, social psychologist Geoffrey
Cohen discovered that Democrats are more accepting of a
welfare program if they believe it was proposed by a fellow
Democrat, even when, in fact, the proposal comes from a
Republican and is quite restrictive. Cohen also found the same
effect in reverse for Republicans.
o

In other words, even when examining the exact same data,
people from both parties arrive at radically different conclusions.
Interestingly, we have some indication of where in the brain this
phenomenon takes place.
o Another study involving political beliefs and using brain scans
of subjects found that the part of the brain most associated
with reasoning was quiescent during the process of evaluating
contradictory statements made by presidential candidates.
o
The parts of the brain that were most active were those involved
in the processing of emotions and active in conflict resolution.
Most tellingly, once subjects had arrived at a conclusion
that made them emotionally comfortable, a part of the brain
associated with reward became active.
o
In other words, instead of rationally evaluating a candidate’s
positions on this or that issue, we appear to have an emotional
reaction to conflicting data, in which we rationalize away the
parts that do not fit our preconceived beliefs, then receive a
reward in the form of a neurochemical hit, probably dopamine,
the brain drug associated with learning.
Hindsight Bias
 The hindsight bias is the tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with
present knowledge. Once an event has occurred, we look back and
29
Lecture 4: Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
reconstruct how it happened, why it had to happen that way and not
some other way, and why we should have seen it coming all along.

We see this process at work on cable television shows that track the
stock market throughout the day with an endless parade of financial
experts whose prognostications are quickly forgotten as they shift
to postdiction—or after-the-fact analysis—after the market closes.
In fact, the hindsight bias is the cognitive process behind the post
hoc fallacy.

The hindsight bias is often on prominent display after a major
disaster, when people think they know how and why the disaster
occurred and why our experts and leaders should have seen it
coming. The hindsight bias is equally evident in times of war, as
we can see in conspiracy theories related to President Roosevelt’s
foreknowledge about the attack on Pearl Harbor or President
George W. Bush’s about September 11.
Self-Justification Bias
 The self-justification bias is the tendency to rationalize decisions
after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the
best thing we could have done. Once we make a decision about
something in our lives, we carefully screen subsequent data and
filter out all contradictory information related to that decision,
leaving only evidence in support of the choice we made. This bias
applies to everything from career choices to mundane purchases.
30

One of the positive aspects of the self-justification bias is that
no matter what decision we make, we will almost always be
satisfied with the decision, even when the objective evidence is to
the contrary.

This process of cherry-picking the data happens at even the highest
levels of expert assessment. The political scientist Philip Tetlock,
for example, found that even though experts in politics and
economics claim to have data in support of their predictions and
assessments, in fact, their evaluations turn out to be no better than
those of non-experts—or even chance. Yet as the self-justification
heuristic would predict, experts are significantly less likely to admit
that they are wrong than non-experts.
o Consider what this bias means for the fate of the world
economy, which is in the hands of such experts. To what extent
are they influenced by this and other cognitive biases when
they make crucial decisions that affect economic, political, and
social policy?
o
Of course, the fact that experts don’t know everything doesn’t
mean that research and accumulated knowledge are worthless
and all opinions are equal. The point here is that skepticism
calls for reason, empirical research, and logical analysis—
without bias.
Attribution Bias
 Our beliefs are very much grounded in how we attribute the causal
explanations for them, and this leads to attribution bias, or the
tendency to attribute different causes for our own beliefs and
actions than those of others.


The attribution bias is sometimes called the fundamental attribution
error, and it comes in several varieties, including:
o Situational attribution bias, in which we identify the cause of
someone’s belief or behavior in the environment
o
Dispositional attribution bias, in which we identify the cause of
someone’s belief or behavior as an enduring personal trait
o
Intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own
beliefs as being rationally motivated
o
Emotional attribution bias, in which people see the beliefs of
others as being emotionally driven
As a result of attribution bias, we tend to see ourselves as rational
and other people who disagree with us as irrational. This not only
31
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 4: Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
The compromise necessary for a functional democracy to work is hampered if
each side views the other as irrational, emotional, and unquestionably wrong;
why compromise with people whose opinions you believe to be
completely invalid?
makes it difficult for us to understand one another, but it makes it
hard for us to see our own belief shortcomings.
Availability Bias and Representative Bias
 The availability bias is the tendency to assign probabilities of
potential outcomes based on examples that are immediately available
to us, especially those that are vivid, unusual, or emotionally
charged. For example, your estimation of the probability of dying
in a plane crash is directly related to the availability of just such an
event in your world, especially your exposure to it in mass media.

32
Related to the availability bias is the representative bias, or the
tendency to judge the probability of an event based on the essential
features of its parent type. This cognitive bias was identified by
the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who
noted, “When faced with the difficult task of judging probability
or frequency, people employ a limited number of heuristics which
reduce these judgments to simpler ones.”
o The thought experiment known as the Linda problem illustrates
this bias. When the description of Linda, a job candidate, was
presented to subjects, 85 percent drew the wrong conclusion
about her, that is, that she is both a bank teller and a feminist,
rather than that she is simply a bank teller.
o
Mathematically speaking, the bank teller/feminist choice is
wrong because the probability of two events occurring together
is less than the probability of either event occurring alone.
o
Most people get the Linda problem wrong because they
fall victim to the representative fallacy, in which the bank
teller/feminist conclusion seems more representative of the
description of Linda.
Other Biases and Beliefs
 Consistency bias is the tendency to recall one’s past beliefs,
attitudes, and behaviors as resembling present beliefs, attitudes, and
behavior more than they actually do.

In-group bias is the tendency for people to value more the beliefs
and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be fellow members of
their group and to discount and value less the beliefs and attitudes
of those whom they perceive to be members of a different group.

Negativity bias is the tendency to pay closer attention and to give
more weight to negative events, beliefs, and information than
to positive.

Normalcy bias is the tendency to discount the possibility of a
disaster that has never happened before.

The “not invented here” bias is the tendency to discount the value
of a belief or source of information that does not come from within
yourself or your group.
33

Projection bias is the tendency to assume that others share the same
or similar beliefs, attitudes, and values and to overestimate the
probability of others’ behaviors based on our own behaviors.

Rosy retrospection bias is the tendency to remember past events as
being more positive than they actually were or as they were rated
when the event occurred.

Finally, blind-spot bias is the tendency to recognize the power of
cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence on
our own beliefs.
Lecture 4: Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
Summing Up Cognitive Biases
 Hundreds of experiments in cognitive psychology reveal that even
highly educated people make snap decisions under high levels of
uncertainty, and they do so by employing these cognitive heuristics
to shortcut the computational process.

It’s possible that these cognitive shortcuts evolved from a need to
act swiftly and decisively in our ancestral environment rather than
taking the time to collect additional information about potential
predators and prey.

It is not necessarily the case that these shortcuts are always bad, but
they can lead us astray at times; thus, awareness of them can help us
make more informed decisions.
Important Terms
attribution bias: The tendency to attribute different causes for our own
beliefs and actions than those of others; also known as the fundamental
attribution error. There are several variants: A situational attribution bias
happens when we identify the cause of someone’s belief or behavior in the
environment; a dispositional attribution bias is when we identify the cause
of someone’s belief or behavior in the person as an enduring personal trait;
an intellectual attribution bias is when people consider their own beliefs as
34
being rationally motivated; and an emotional attribution bias is when people
see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven.
availability bias: The tendency to assign probabilities of potential outcomes
based on examples that are immediately available to us, especially those that
are vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged.
blind-spot bias: The tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in
other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs.
cognitive heuristics: Thinking shortcuts to help us make snap decisions
under uncertainty; also known as cognitive shortcuts or cognitive rules
of thumb.
confirmation bias: The tendency to search for and find confirming
evidence for what we already believe and to ignore or rationalize away
disconfirming evidence.
hindsight bias: The tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present
knowledge; also known as Monday-morning quarterbacking.
representative bias: The tendency to judge the probability of an event based
on the essential features of its parent type.
self-justification bias: The tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to
convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done.
Suggested Reading
Cialdini, Influence.
Damasio, Descartes’ Error.
Darley and Gross, “A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects.”
Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, When Prophecy Fails.
Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So.
35
Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky, “The Hot Hand in Basketball.”
Glassner, The Culture of Fear.
Huff, How to Lie with Statistics.
Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk.
Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias.”
Pronin, Lin, and Ross, “The Bias Blind Spot.”
Simons and Chabris, The Invisible Gorilla.
Tavris and Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).
Questions to Consider
1. In what ways do cognitive biases help and hinder us in understanding
the world?
Lecture 4: Cognitive Biases and Their Effects
2. In what way is 20/20 hindsight a bias that can blind us to the truth?
3. Why are experts no better than non-experts at predicting the future?
4. Why do we attribute different motives and causes to ourselves than
to others?
5. Why are we able to recognize cognitive biases in other people but not
in ourselves?
36
Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life
Lecture 5
I
n this lecture, we will apply some basic principles of skepticism and
psychology to understand how and why people make mistakes in
thinking in everyday life. We’ll explore the rich body of research on how
people behave irrationally when it comes to money, which cognitive biases
and fallacies of thought most interfere with our ability to make rational
decisions about our purchases and investments, and how to avoid the pitfalls
that most people succumb to in one of the most important areas of life.
Compliance
 Compliance is the outward apparent conformity by individuals to
group norms or an authority’s commands. Of course, compliance
with some group norms, such as driving on the right side of the
road or practicing common courtesy, is the social glue of society.
But compliance can have serious consequences when it leads us to
“go with the flow” rather than think for ourselves.

For example, in one demonstration, smoke was piped into a room
in which one real applicant and several accomplices were filling out
forms to be part of a new reality television show. The accomplices
continued to fill out their forms as the room filled with smoke, as
did most of the real subjects, even while looking around for some
sort of sign that action should be taken.

This demonstration illustrated the social psychological effect of
diffusion of responsibility, or the collective belief among members
of a group that someone else is taking responsibility for a particular
problem or issue—to the point where no one acts.
Attentional Blindness
 We often think of our eyes as video cameras and our brains as blank
tapes to be filled with percepts. Memory, in this flawed model, is
37
simply rewinding the tape and playing it back in the theater of the
mind, but this is not at all what happens.
o The perceptual system and the brain that analyzes its data are
deeply influenced by where we direct our attention and the
beliefs we hold. As a consequence, much of what passes before
our eyes may be invisible to a brain focused on something else.
Lecture 5: Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life
o
Psychologists call this phenomenon attentional blindness,
or the tendency to miss something obvious and general while
attending to something special and specific.

This effect was discovered by the psychologists Daniel Simons and
Christopher Chabris in a now-famous experiment. Subjects were
asked to watch a 1-minute video of two teams of basketball players
tossing two basketballs among themselves. The assigned task was
to count the number of passes made by the team in white shirts.
About 35 seconds into the video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit
walked onto the court, thumped his chest, and exited. Amazingly,
only half of the subjects noticed the gorilla!

The implications of attentional blindness are staggering. Texting
while driving is an obvious example, because in that case, the
driver is looking away from the scene. But many times, we are
blind to what is right in front of us; thus, we need to constantly
remind ourselves to look for the unexpected.
Folk Numeracy
 Another way that our psychology can fool us in our everyday
lives is captured in the idea of folk numeracy, that is, our natural
tendency to misperceive probabilities, to think anecdotally instead
of statistically, and to focus on and remember short-term trends and
small-number runs.

38
The chances of any one person winning the lottery, for example,
are extremely low, but in the lottery system as a whole, someone
will win. To the winner, the event seems unbelievably lucky, but to
everyone else, the fact that someone eventually had to win means
that the win is not surprising.
Other examples of folk numeracy include noticing a short stretch
of cool days and ignoring the long-term global warming trend or
getting upset over a downturn in the stock market while forgetting a
half-century of upward-pointing trend lines. In fact, saw-tooth data
trend lines are exemplary of folk numeracy, where our senses are
geared to focus on each
tooth’s up or down angle
while the overall direction
of the blade is nearly
invisible to us.
Anchoring Effects
 In situations in which
we lack an objective
standard
to
evaluate
beliefs and decisions—
and such situations are
not uncommon—we often
grasp for any standard Savvy restaurateurs often list an
expensive bottle of wine on the menu
on hand, no matter how above other wine choices; the highseemingly
subjective. priced bottle anchors the customer’s
Such standards are called judgment at a high level.
anchors, and their use can
lead to the anchoring effect, or the tendency to rely too heavily on a
past reference or on one piece of information when making decisions.

The comparison anchor can even be entirely arbitrary. For example,
the MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely had subjects write down
the last two digits of their Social Security numbers and then had
them bid to buy such items as wine, chocolate, and a computer.
(Subjects were uncertain of the values of the items.) Ariely found
that subjects who had higher two-digit numbers made larger bids
than subjects who had lower numbers. With no objective anchor for
39
© Digital Vision/Thinkstock.

comparison, this random anchor made people more vulnerable to
arbitrary influence.

Our intuitive sense of the anchoring effect and its power leads
negotiators in corporate mergers, representatives in business deals,
and even disputants in divorces to begin from an extreme initial
position in order to set the anchor high for their side.
Lecture 5: Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life
Sunk-Cost Effect
 Have you ever held onto a stock too long because you purchased
it at a higher price and now it is lower? Or have you stayed with a
business that was failing because you had sunk so much work into
it? These are examples of the sunk-cost effect, or the tendency to
believe in or do something because of the cost sunk into that belief
or action.

The sunk-cost effect is a basic fallacy of thinking: Why should past
investment influence future decisions? If we were rational, we should
just compute the odds of succeeding from this point forward and then
decide if additional investment warrants the potential payoff.

But we are not rational—not in business, not in love, and not even
in war, as the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate. These
wars cost us billions of dollars a year in military expenditures
alone, along with thousands of American lives. No wonder that
most members of Congress and four presidents have advocated
“staying the course.”
Status Quo Effect
 The status quo effect is the tendency to opt for whatever it is
we are used to—the status quo. For example, most of us tend to
prefer existing social, economic, and political arrangements over
proposed alternatives, sometimes even at the expense of individual
and collective self-interest.

40
Economists William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser discovered
that when people are offered a choice among four financial
investment options with varying degrees of risk, they select one
based on their level of risk aversion, and their choices range widely.
But when people were told that an investment tool had been selected
for them and that they then had the opportunity to switch to another
investment, 47 percent stayed with what they already had.
o The economists explained the effect as a consequence of
three factors: “(1) rational decision making in the presence of
transition costs and/or uncertainty; (2) cognitive misperceptions;
and (3) psychological commitment stemming from misperceived
sunk costs, regret avoidance, or a drive for consistency.”
o

In other words, we avoid uncertainty, we prefer lower transition
costs of switching choices, and we misperceive what the other
options are actually like.
The status quo represents what we already have (and would have
to give up in order to change) versus what we might have once we
choose, which is far riskier. Maintaining the status quo is another
reason that people tend to stay in jobs, homes, and marriages
sometimes longer than they should; the sunk-cost effect directly
links to the status quo effect.
The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Framing
 The psychology underlying the sunk-cost and status quo effects is
what the economist Richard Thaler calls the endowment effect,
or the tendency to value what we own more than what we do not
own. In his research on the endowment effect, Thaler has found that
owners of an item value it at roughly twice as much as potential
buyers of the same item.

The endowment effect may be traceable to the natural propensity
for animals to mark their territories and defend them through threat
gestures and even physical aggression. Evolution seems to have
selected for creatures that were more willing to defend their own
territory and resources than to attack another creature’s because
the attempt to take another’s property was more costly than finding
new territory of their own and defending it.
41

The endowment effect with property ownership may well be
connected to another psychological effect called loss aversion,
where we are twice as motivated to avoid the pain of loss as we are
to seek the pleasure of gain.
o Evolution seems to have wired us to care more about what
we already have than what we might possess; here, we find
the evolved moral emotion that undergirds the concept of
private property.
o
Lecture 5: Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life

We might think of beliefs as a type of private property—in
the form of our private thoughts with public expressions.
The status quo bias, the endowment effect, and loss aversion
lead us to want to hang on to our beliefs, even in the face of
contradictory evidence.
How beliefs are assessed is often determined by how they are
framed; this is called the framing effect, or the tendency to draw
different conclusions based on how data are presented. Framing
effects are especially noticeable in financial decisions, as well as
economic, political, and scientific beliefs.
Can We Think Clearly?
 Now that we know about these problematic ways of thinking and
the various influences on our beliefs that can lead us astray, will we
automatically think clearly from now on? Unfortunately, the answer
is no. Vigilance is required to catch ourselves making mistakes
in thinking.

42
These social and psychological effects that cause us to err are
why science has built-in self-correcting devices to weed out error
and bias. For example, strict double-blind controls are required in
experiments, in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters
know the experimental conditions during the data-collection
phase. Research results are vetted at professional conferences and
in peer-reviewed journals, and research must be replicated in labs
unaffiliated with the original researchers.

Scientists are no less vulnerable to the effects of wrong thinking
than anyone else; thus, such precautions must be vigorously
enforced, especially by scientists themselves. In our everyday lives,
we can practice thinking like scientists to help us avoid the pitfalls
of wrong thinking.
Important Terms
anchoring effect: The tendency to rely too heavily on a past reference or on
one piece of information when making decisions.
attentional blindness: The tendency to miss something obvious and general
while attending to something special and specific.
compliance: The outward apparent conformity by individuals to group
norms or an authority’s commands.
diffusion of responsibility: The collective beliefs among members of a
group that someone else is taking responsibility for a particular problem or
issue, to the point where no one acts.
endowment effect: The tendency to value what we own more than what we
do not own.
folk numeracy: Our natural tendency to misperceive probabilities, to think
anecdotally instead of statistically, and to focus on and remember short-term
trends and small-number runs.
framing effect: The tendency to draw different conclusions based on how
data are presented or framed by choice alternatives.
loss aversion: Losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good; thus, we are
averse to loss and avoid it where possible.
status quo effect: The tendency to opt for whatever it is we are used to, that
is, the status quo.
43
sunk-cost effect: The tendency to believe in something because of the cost
sunk into that belief.
Suggested Reading
Cialdini, Influence.
Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So.
Gilovich and Belsky, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How
to Correct Them.
Glassner, The Culture of Fear.
Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Shermer, The Mind of the Market.
Simons and Chabris, The Invisible Gorilla.
Tavris and Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).
Lecture 5: Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life
Questions to Consider
1. What are compliance and diffusion of responsibility, and how do they
lead us to fail to act when we should?
2. What is folk numeracy, and how does it lead us to misunderstand
probabilities and to be fooled by randomness?
3. What are anchoring effects, and have you ever seen one on a restaurant
menu?
4. What is the sunk-cost effect, and has it ever happened to you?
5. What is the status quo effect, and how does it lead to complacency?
6. What is the endowment effect, and how does it produce loss aversion?
44
The Neuroscience of Belief
Lecture 6
A
s we’ve seen in the past few lectures, all of us are subject to errors
and biases in our thinking. In this lecture, we’ll look at why that
is—in other words, the probable evolutionary origin of superstition
and magical thinking and the reasons that all of us are more likely to make
one type of error in thinking than another type. We’ll also look at how the
brain works, beginning with the neuron and its connections to other neurons
in the brain and working our way up through the neural networks that go
into the formation of beliefs. We’ll close by looking at how this information
answers the mind/brain debate.
Patternicity
 Imagine that you are a hominid walking along the grassy plains of
an African valley 3 million years ago. You hear a rustle in the grass.
Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? Your answer could mean
life or death.
o If you assume that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous
predator, but it turns out to be just the wind, you have made
what is called a type I error in cognition, that is, believing a
pattern is real when it is not.
o

But if you assume that the rustle in the grass is just the wind
and it turns out to be a dangerous predator, you’re lunch! This
is a type II error in cognition, that is, believing a pattern is not
real when it is.
Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines
that create meaning out of the patterns we think we see in nature.
Sometimes, the association is not real and may be relatively harmless.
When the association is real, however, we learn something valuable
about the environment, from which we can make predictions that
aid in survival and reproduction. We appear to be the descendants of
those who were most successful at finding patterns.
45

This process, patternicity, is the tendency to find meaningful
patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. It occurs
whenever the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of
making a type II error. But in our ancestral environments, assessing
the difference between these types of errors was problematic
in the split-second timing that often determined the difference
between life and death; thus, the default position is to assume that
all patterns are real. This is
the basis for superstition and
magical thinking.
Lecture 6: The Neuroscience of Belief
46
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Locus of Control
 Patternicities do not occur
randomly but are related to the
context and environment of
the organism, especially to the
extent an individual believes
that he or she is in control of the
environment. Psychologists call
this locus of control.
Most people predict that the
outcome of three consecutive
rolls of a die is more likely to
be 5-1-3 than 2-2-2; in fact, both
outcomes are equally likely.

People who rate high on
internal locus of control tend to
believe that they make things
happen and are in control of
their circumstances; people who score high on external locus of
control tend to think that circumstances are beyond their control
and things just happen to them.

Locus of control is also mediated by levels of certainty or
uncertainty in the environment. The anthropologist Bronislaw
Malinowski’s studies of superstitions among the Trobriand
Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrated that as the level of
uncertainty in the environment increased, so too, did the level of
superstitious behavior in the form of rituals performed before and
after fishing expeditions.

The relationship among personality, belief, and patternicity was
also explored by the experimental psychologist Susan Blackmore.
She discovered that people who believe in ESP tend to look at data
sets and see evidence of the paranormal, whereas skeptics do not.
She also found that believers tend to recognize more patterns but
make more type I false-positive errors in identifying those patterns
than do nonbelievers.
Patternicity in the Brain
 Our brains are divided into two hemispheres connected in the
middle at the corpus callosum; inputs from the left side of the body
go to the right hemisphere and inputs from the right side of the body
go to the left hemisphere. Carl Sagan conjectured that the right
hemisphere “may perceive patterns and connections too difficult
for the left hemisphere; but it may also detect patterns where none
exist.” Sagan further said, “Skeptical and critical thinking is not a
hallmark of the right hemisphere.”

Evidence for this observation was found by the Swiss neuroscientist
Peter Brugger, who presented random-dot patterns to subjects in
a divided visual field paradigm so that either the left hemisphere
or the right hemisphere of the brain was exposed to the image.
Brugger found that both believers and nonbelievers in the
paranormal perceived significantly more meaningful patterns in the
right hemisphere than in the left.

The left cortex of the brain is dominant in verbal tasks, such as
writing and speaking, and the right cortex is dominant in nonverbal
and spatial tasks. The left hemisphere is the literal, logical, rational
brain, and the right hemisphere is the metaphorical, holistic,
intuitive brain.

The dominance of one hemisphere over the other is neither
good nor bad; the type of thinking required depends on the task.
Creativity, for example, appears to be related to right-brain
dominance, which makes sense given that the ability to find new
and interesting patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise
47
is what creativity is all about. The key is to find a balance between
keeping our minds open enough to see new patterns but not so open
that we believe every pattern we see is real.
Lecture 6: The Neuroscience of Belief
Agenticity
 Agenticity is the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning,
intention, and agency. That is, we often impart agency and
intention to the patterns we find and believe that these intentional
agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down,
instead of the bottom-up causal randomness that makes up much
of our world. Agenticity forms the basis of shamanism, paganism,
animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New
Age spiritualisms.

In his 2009 book Supersense, University of Bristol psychologist
Bruce Hood documents the growing body of data demonstrating
not only our tendency to infuse patterns with agency and intention
but also to believe that objects, animals, and people contain an
essence—something that is at the core of their being that makes
them what they are—and that this essence may be transmitted from
objects to people and from people to people.

Hood finds evolutionary reasons for this essentialism, rooted in
fears about diseases and contagions that contain all-too-natural
essences that can be deadly (and, hence, should be avoided); thus,
there was a natural selection for those who avoided deadly diseases
by following their instincts about essence avoidance.

But we also generalize these essence emotions to both natural and
supernatural beings, to any and all objects and people, and to things
seen and unseen, and we assume that those seen and unseen objects
and people also have agency and intention.
Patternicity, Agenticity, and the Workings of the Brain
 What is actually going on inside the brain when we “believe”
something? Our perceptions of the world are filtered through our
brains, which receive input from the senses; thus, on a fundamental
48
level, the variation in our beliefs is due to differences in the
perceptual experiences that have shaped our individual brains.


The brain consists of about 100 billion neurons and approximately
1,000 trillion synaptic connections between those neurons.
o
Neurons are elegantly simple electrochemical informationprocessing machines. Inside a resting neuronal cell there is
more potassium than there is sodium; a predominance of
anions—negatively charged ions—gives the inside of the cell
a negative charge.
o
When a neuron is stimulated by the actions of other neurons,
the permeability of the cell wall changes, allowing sodium to
enter and the cell wall to reach a critical point. That causes
an instant spike in voltage, which spreads throughout the cell
body and cascades down the cell to the next neuron in line.
When this happens, we say that the cell “fired.”
o
Note that if the “critical point” for the neuron to fire is not
reached, then it does not fire; if the critical point is reached,
then the neuron fires. It’s an on-or-off system.
o
If we consider these neuronal on-or-off states as a type of
mental state, with one neuron giving us two mental states (on
or off), then there are 2 × 1015 possible choices available to the
brain in processing information about the world and the body
it is running. In essence, the brain is an infinite informationprocessing machine.
Of course, we are not aware of the workings of our own
electrochemical systems. What we actually experience is what
philosophers call qualia, subjective states of thoughts and feelings
that arise from a concatenation of neural events. But even qualia
are the result of the electrochemical process of neuronal action
potentials, or neurons firing and communicating.
49
Lecture 6: The Neuroscience of Belief
Brain and Mind
 This model of the brain is accepted by all neuroscientists and is
not controversial. What it implies, however, is controversial: All
experience—including our sense of reality and our sense of self—is
mediated by the brain.
50

There appears to be no such thing as “mind” outside of brain
activity. “Mind” is just a word we use to describe neural activity in
the brain. But most people are dualists: They believe that there are
two substances in the world—material and immaterial, body and
soul, brain and mind.

Medical evidence reinforces the fact that without neural connections
in the brain, there is no mind. If part of the brain is destroyed
through disease or injury, then that part’s function is no longer
carried out, unless—as is possible in some cases—it is rewired into
another neural network in the brain.

Still, Paul Bloom, a Yale University psychologist, says that we are
natural-born dualists. The explanation for this may be found in
agenticity and essentialism. This is the belief that all things have
an “essence”—a core, a spirit—that makes them who or what they
are and not something else; with our propensity to be dualists, we
also tend to think that this essence is noncorporeal, nonmaterial, or
spiritual. In other words, the essence is the “soul” of a thing.

Such beliefs are not supported by neuroscience. For example,
damage to the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe causes
face blindness—the inability to recognize familiar faces—
and stimulation of this same area causes people to see faces
spontaneously that are not really present. Further, neuroscientists
can predict human choices from brain scan activity before subjects
are even consciously aware of the decisions made.

Thousands of experiments confirm the hypothesis that
neurochemical processes produce subjective experiences, that the
mind is nothing more than the brain in action.
Important Terms
action potential: When the cell wall of a neuron becomes permeable to
sodium, with a corresponding shift in voltage from negative to positive,
an electrical signal travels down the axon to the dendrites at the end of the
neuronal cell, where the signal may then be passed on to other neurons;
colloquially, the cell “fired.”
agenticity: The tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and
agency.
dualism: The belief in two substances in the world—corporeal and
incorporeal, body and soul, brain and mind.
ESP: Extrasensory perception, or the claim that information may be
transferred through nonsensory or extrasensory means beyond the present
understanding of the science of sense perception.
essentialism: The belief that objects, animals, and people contain an
essence—an invisible force or substance that is at the core of their being that
makes them what they are—and that this essence may be transmitted from
objects to people and from people to people.
locus of control: The extent to which an individual believes that he or
she is in control of the environment (internal locus of control) or that the
environment controls the individual (external locus of control).
patternicity: The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful
and meaningless noise.
qualia: The subjective experience of the world through thoughts and feelings
that arise from a concatenation of neural events.
synapse: The tiny gap between neurons in the brain by which they can
communicate by releasing neurochemical transmitter substances across
the gap to trigger (or not) the receiving neuron to “fire,” or have an
action potential.
51
type I error: Assuming that two events are connected when they are not;
also known as a false positive or believing that a pattern is real when it is not.
type II error: Assuming that two events are not connected when they are;
also known as a false negative or not believing a pattern is real when it is.
Suggested Reading
Dennett, The Intentional Stance.
Hood, Supersense.
Koch, The Quest for Consciousness.
LeDoux, Synaptic Self.
Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion.
Marshall et al., “The Five-Factor Model of Personality as a Framework for
Personality-Health Research.”
Sagan, The Dragons of Eden.
Questions to Consider
Lecture 6: The Neuroscience of Belief
1. What is patternicity, and how does it lead us to make more type I falsepositive errors in thinking than type II false-negative errors in thinking?
2. What is agenticity, and how does it lead us to believe in ghosts, gods,
angels, and demons?
3. What is essentialism, and how does it cause us to believe in invisible
forces and substances?
4. How do neurons communicate in the brain?
5. How does the quantitative action of neurons swapping chemicals
become the qualitative experience of thinking and sensing the world?
52
The Paranormal and the Supernatural
Lecture 7
I
n this lecture, we will learn how faulty neural activity and anomalous
neural firing can lead to apparently paranormal, supernatural, and
extraordinary experiences that prompt people to embrace all sorts of
strange beliefs. We will also consider the fact that science searches for natural
explanations for natural phenomena—there is no such thing as the paranormal
or the supernatural; there is only the normal, the natural, and all the mysteries
we have yet to explain. This lecture examines a number of paranormal and
supernatural claims, how scientists think about them and put them to the test,
and what all those failed tests tell us about the future of such claims.
Michael Persinger and the God Helmet
 The evidence that brain and mind are one is now overwhelming.
Consider the research by neuroscientist Michael Persinger: In his
laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, he induces
encounters with demons and out-of-body experiences in volunteers
by subjecting their temporal lobes to patterns of magnetic fields.
o Persinger uses electromagnets inside a modified motorcycle
helmet (sometimes called the God helmet) to produce temporal
lobe transients in his subjects—increases and instabilities in
the neuronal firing patterns in the temporal lobe region, just
above the ears.
o
Persinger believes that the magnetic fields stimulate
microseizures in the temporal lobes, often producing what
can best be described as spiritual or supernatural experiences,
including the sense of a presence in the room, the bizarre
distortion of body parts, and profound religious feelings of
being in contact with God, saints, or angels.
o
The process itself is an example of agenticity, that is, the
tendency to infuse patterns with intentional agents, often
invisible beings who act in and influence our lives.
53
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 7: The Paranormal and the Supernatural
Participants in the Iditarod have been known to hallucinate animals, trains and
airplanes, UFOs, voices, and occasionally, phantom people on the side of the
trail or imaginary friends hitching a ride on the sled.

Some neuroscientists are skeptical about Persinger’s research, but
for skeptics, it’s important that his work is focused on trying to
find natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena.
According to Persinger, the “fate of the paranormal” is to become
normal—to disappear under the scrutiny of the scientific method.
The Sensed-Presence Effect and the Paranormal
 One of the most effective means we have of understanding how the
brain works is the study of what happens when it doesn’t work well
or when individuals are exposed to stress or extreme conditions.
The third-man factor or the sensed-presence effect, a phenomenon
that is well known among mountain climbers, polar explorers,
isolated sailors, and endurance athletes, illustrates how extreme
conditions can compromise brain function.

54
The sensed presence is sometimes described as a guardian angel
that appears in extreme and unusual environments. Particularly in
life-and-death struggles for survival in exceptionally harsh climes
or under unusual strain or stress, the brain apparently conjures up
help for physical guidance or moral support. The effect can be
triggered by monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold,
injury, and so on.

Given that sensed-presence experiences occur in widely differing
environments, it’s likely that they are caused by more than one
environmental factor, such as temperature, altitude, oxygen
deprivation, physical exhaustion, and so on. Whatever the
immediate cause, a deeper cause of the sensed-presence effect is
also likely found in the brain.

The process of sensing a presence is probably, in part, an extension
of our normal expectations of having others around us because we
are a social species. We have all lived with others, particularly in
our formative years; thus, we develop a sense of the presence of
others, whether they exist or not.

A conflict between the high road of controlled reason and the low
road of automatic emotion may also trigger a sensed presence.
o Brain functions can be roughly divided into two processes,
controlled and automatic. Controlled processes tend to use linear,
step-by-step logic and are deliberately employed; we are aware
of these processes when we use them. Automatic processes
operate unconsciously, nondeliberately, and in parallel.
o
Controlled processes tend to occur in the front (orbital and
prefrontal) parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is known as
the executive region because it integrates the other regions for
long-term planning. Automatic processes tend to occur in the
back (occipital), top (parietal), and side (temporal) parts of the
brain. The amygdala is associated with automatic emotional
responses, especially fear.
o
Under extreme conditions, there may be a competition between
these controlled and automatic brain systems. As in the fight55
or-flight response—in which blood flow is shunted toward the
center of the body and away from the periphery—the body
powers down higher functions in order to preserve the lower
functions necessary for basic survival.
o
Lecture 7: The Paranormal and the Supernatural

56
In normal day-to-day living, the controlled circuits of reason
keep our automatic circuits of emotions in check, ensuring that
we do not give in to every whim and impulse. But when the
rational governor is removed, the emotional machinery begins
to spin out of control.
A third possible explanation for the sensed presence is that there
may be a conflict within the body schema, or our physical sense
of self, in which the brain is tricked into thinking that another self
is present.
o Your brain has an overarching portrait of your body, from your
toes to the top of your head. This is your body schema, and it
extends beyond the body into the world when your thinking
engages with other people through language or with any other
extended reach from inside your head to outside your body.
This body schema is you, and there is only one of you.
o
If your brain is tricked (or altered or damaged) into thinking
that there is another you—an internal dopplegänger—a conflict
inevitably arises with your single body schema. To adjust for
this anomaly, your brain constructs a plausible explanation
for this other you: It is actually someone or something else, a
noncorporeal entity or soul coming out of your body or another
person—a sensed presence.
o
Michael Persinger thinks that our “sense of self” is maintained
by the left hemisphere temporal lobe. Under normal brain
functioning, this is matched by corresponding systems in the
right hemisphere’s temporal lobe. When these two systems are
out of synch, the left hemisphere interprets the uncoordinated
activity as “another self” or a “sensed presence” because there
can only be one self.

Finally, the sensed-presence effect may result from a conflict within
the mind schema, or our psychological sense of self, in which the
mind is tricked into thinking that another mind is present.
o Our brains consist of many independent neural networks that
at any given moment are working away at various problems in
daily living. Yet we do not feel like we’re a bundle of networks;
we feel like a single mind in one brain.
o
The neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga thinks that we have a
neural network that coordinates all the other neural networks
and weaves them together into a whole. He calls this the
“left-hemisphere interpreter,” the brain’s storyteller that puts
together countless inputs into a meaningful narrative story.
o
Gazzaniga discovered this network while studying split-brain
patients, in which the connection between the two hemispheres
in their brains has been severed (usually done to stop the spread
of seizures in epileptic patients). Gazzaniga also tells the
remarkable story of patients with reduplicative paramnesia,
a brain disorder in which people believe that there are copies
of people or places that they mix up into one experience that
makes perfect sense to them even if it sounds ridiculous to
everyone around them.
Quantum Consciousness and the Paranormal
 Science has sought for years to make sense of the weirdness of
the quantum world, as exemplified in Heisenberg’s uncertainty
principle, which states that the more precisely a particle’s position
is known, the less precisely its speed can be known, and vice versa.
Science also continues to probe the mysteries of the macro world,
such as consciousness.

The concept of quantum consciousness presented in the film What
the #@*! Do We Know?! is based on the work of Roger Penrose, a
mathematical physicist, and Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist,
and has been popularized by such New Age gurus as Deepak
Chopra. Their theory of quantum consciousness is as follows:
57
Lecture 7: The Paranormal and the Supernatural
58
o
Inside our neurons are tiny, hollow microtubules that act like
structural scaffolding. Something inside the microtubules may
initiate what is called in quantum physics a “wave function
collapse” that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms. This
causes neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses
between neurons and, thus, triggers them to fire in a uniform
pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness.
o
In other words, when you think a thought, the neurons in your
brain are firing and sending chemical signals to one another.
These chemicals are molecules that are made of atoms, which
in turn are made of subatomic particles, where quantum effects
can happen. One of these quantum effects is that one subatomic
particle can affect another subatomic particle instantly and
even when they are far apart, from the other side of the room to
the other side of the planet.
o
When you think a thought, quantum effects take place in your
brain that can be transmitted through your skull, across space,
and into my brain, causing my neurons to fire in synchronicity
with your neurons and making it possible for me to read your
mind. Further, the quantum interaction of your thoughts with
the world could mean that what you think fundamentally
changes the environment around you.

According to Victor Stenger, a University of Colorado particle
physicist, the mass of neural transmitter molecules and their
speed across the distance of the synapse are about three orders of
magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. In other
words, the gap between quantum effects at the subatomic level and
large-scale macro systems, such as the neurons in our brains, is too
large to bridge. There is no micro-macro connection.

We are not even close to understanding how the mind works
enough to conclude that we must employ quantum mechanics in
order to fully grasp its operations. Deepak Chopra argues that the
hypothesis that consciousness creates brain is as likely to be true
as the hypothesis that the brain causes consciousness. But we know
for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies,
so until proven otherwise, the default hypothesis must be that brains
cause consciousness through neuronal activity and not vice versa.

In short, there seems to be no reliable evidence of the paranormal
or supernatural, and science and logic offer many reasons to doubt
that they are anything but the products of our brains. We can
keep ourselves plenty busy with the normal, the natural, and the
mysteries we have yet to explain.
Important Terms
body schema: The brain’s mapping of the body, from toes and fingers,
through legs and arms, into the torso, and up the back to the top of the head.
It may also extend beyond the body into the world when engaged with other
people through language—when writing something down on paper or typing
it into a computer—or when engaged in any other extended reach from
inside the head to outside the body.
high road of controlled reason: Controlled processes in the brain that tend
to use linear, step-by-step logic and are deliberately employed; we are aware
of these processes when we use them. Such controlled processes tend to
occur in the front (orbital and prefrontal) parts of the brain. The prefrontal
cortex is known as the executive region because it integrates the other
regions for long-term planning.
low road of automatic emotion: Automatic processes in the brain that tend
to operate unconsciously, nondeliberately, and in parallel; we are unaware
of these processes when we use them. Automatic processes tend to occur in
the back (occipital), top (parietal), and side (temporal) parts of the brain. The
amygdala is associated with automatic emotional responses, especially fear.
microseizures: Small seizures in the temporal lobes of brains that may
produce what can best be described as “spiritual” or “supernatural”
experiences: the sense of a presence in the room, an out-of-body experience,
59
bizarre distortion of body parts, and even profound religious feelings of
being in contact with God, gods, saints, and angels.
mind schema: Similar to our body schema, the mind schema is our
psychological sense of self, coordinating the various independent neural
networks that at any given moment are working away at various problems
in daily living into a coherent whole perceived as a “self.” There is some
evidence that this happens in the left hemisphere of the brain.
reduplicative paramnesia: A brain disorder in which people believe that
there are copies of people or places that they mix up into one experience
or story that makes perfect sense to them even if it sounds ridiculous to
everyone around them.
Lecture 7: The Paranormal and the Supernatural
sensed-presence effect: Sometimes called the third-man factor, the sense or
feeling that someone or something else is present nearby, often triggered by
monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration,
hunger, fatigue, and fear.
temporal lobe transients: Increases and instabilities in the neuronal firing
patterns in the temporal lobe region of the brain, located just above the ears.
Such transients are associated with paranormal experiences.
Suggested Reading
Beyerstein, “Altered States of Consciousness.”
Blackmore and Moore, “Seeing Things.”
Brugger and Mohr, “Out of the Body, But Not Out of the Mind.”
Brugger et al., “Functional Hemispheric Asymmetry and Belief in ESP.”
Geiger, The Third Man Factor.
Hood, Supersense.
Huxley, The Doors of Perception.
Koch, The Quest for Consciousness.
60
LeDoux, Synaptic Self.
Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion.
Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Shermer, The Believing Brain.
Vyse, Believing in Magic.
Wiseman, Paranormality.
Questions to Consider
1. Why are such words as “paranormal” and “supernatural” not useful for
scientists in understanding how the world works?
2. What is the “God helmet,” and how can it induce paranormal experiences?
3. What is the sensed-presence effect, and how is it misinterpreted
as paranormal?
4. What is quantum consciousness, and does it provide evidence for
disembodied mind?
61
Science versus Pseudoscience
Lecture 8
T
Lecture 8: Science versus Pseudoscience
his lecture delves deeply into human psychology, the need to believe,
and how con artists and even the sincerely deluded employ age-old
techniques to lure people into believing that paranormal powers are
real. The reasons for explaining how psychics work and exploring the claims
of UFOlogists in this lecture are twofold: (1) to avoid being taken in by
people who do psychic readings or by claims of UFO sightings and (2) to
show how scientists and skeptics test such claims, which further reveals how
science and pseudoscience differ. In the process, we will also see some of the
shortcomings of science.
Cold and Warm Readings
 In a cold reading, a “psychic” claims to “read” someone, having
never met the subject and knowing only his or her name and gender.
The psychic asks questions and makes numerous statements to see
how the subject responds. Most of the statements are wrong, and
subjects will visibly shake their heads no. But as we saw in the
lecture on superstitious behavior, people need only an occasional
reinforcement to be convinced that a real pattern is present.
62

In addition to cold reading, psychics practice warm reading, which
uses known principles of psychology that apply to nearly everyone.
Many grieving people, for example, wear a piece of jewelry that
has a connection to a loved one. Psychic mediums know this about
those in mourning and may ask, “Do you have a ring or a piece of
jewelry on you from this person?”

Selective memory and the confirmation bias—where we remember
the hits and forget the misses—also play a role in psychic readings.
When people are interviewed after psychic readings, they often
rattle off all the amazing hits the medium got with almost no effort
but have difficulty remembering any misses at all.
© Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock.
Psychics use broad statements about such topics as health, relatives,
relationships, money, and careers to try to elicit responses from subjects
during readings.

In The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, Ian Rowland, a British
magician and mentalist, demystifies psychic readings by providing
a “personalized” psychological analysis that fits most people, lists
of specific statements to which most people can relate, and lists of
questions that put the onus on the subject to do the reading.

Most bona fide scientists aren’t interested in spending their valuable
time testing what seem to be obviously bogus assertions, but as a
way of getting further insight into the difference between science
and pseudoscience, let’s take a look at how a scientist might go
about testing psychics to see if they can actually do what they claim.
Putting the Paranormal to the Test
 Science begins with something called a null hypothesis,
the assumption or default position that the hypothesis under
investigation is not true (null) until proven otherwise. We have to
63
Lecture 8: Science versus Pseudoscience
assume that a psychic doesn’t have special power until he or she
proves otherwise by providing convincing experimental data to
reject the null hypothesis.

The statistical standards of proof needed to reject the null hypothesis
are substantial. Ideally, in a controlled experiment, we would like
to be at least 99 percent confident that the results were not due to
chance before we offer our provisional assent that the effect may
be real.

Let’s say we have a psychic turn playing cards over one by one,
stating each time whether the upcoming card is red or black. How
many correct hits would the psychic need in order for us to conclude
that the card color determinations were not due to chance?
o In this scenario, the null hypothesis is that the psychic will
do no better than chance, or 50/50; thus, to reject the null
hypothesis, we need to establish a figure for the number of
correct hits greater than 50/50 needed in each round. In this
example, the psychic would need to get 35 correct hits out of a
52-card deck in order for us to reject the null hypothesis at the
99 percent confidence level.

64
o
The statistical method by which this figure is derived need not
concern us here. The point is that even though 35 out of 52
doesn’t sound as if it would be that hard to obtain, in fact, by
chance alone, it would be so unusual that we could confidently
state that something else besides chance was at play.
o
What might that something else be? It could be ESP, but it
might also be a lack of experimental control or some method of
cheating on the part of the psychic. The fact that we don’t know
what the something else is does not make the paranormal real.
The argument from personal incredulity—if I can’t explain it,
then it must be true—does not hold water in science.
Even with controls in place, certainty still eludes science. The
scientific method is the best tool ever devised to distinguish between
reality and fantasy, but we must always remember that we could be
wrong. Rejecting the null hypothesis is not a warranty on truth, yet
failure to reject the null hypothesis does not make the claim false.
Science and the Burden of Proof
 The null hypothesis is another example of the burden-of-proof
argument we covered in the lecture on fallacies of thinking; that
is, the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim
(that a hypothesis is true), not on scientists and skeptics to prove the
null hypothesis.

On the subject of UFO sightings, the null hypothesis states that
UFOs are not extraterrestrial spaceships. The burden is on the
UFO believer to provide evidence to reject the null hypothesis.
UFOlogists may claim that they have such evidence, but scientists
cannot accept as definitive proof of alien visitation such evidence
as blurry photographs, grainy videos, and anecdotes about spooky
lights in the sky.

Many claims of this nature are based on negative evidence. Again,
if science cannot explain X, then another explanation for X is
necessarily true. But in science, many mysteries remain unexplained
until further evidence arises. In contrast, the principle of positive
evidence states that a claimant must have positive evidence in favor
of a theory, not just negative evidence against rival theories. This
principle applies to all claims.
Science’s Shortcomings
 Because science is conducted by humans, it is naturally subject
to all the same biases as every other human activity. Historians of
science have determined, for example, that confirmation bias was
hard at work in one of the most famous experiments in the history
of science.
o In 1919, the British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington set
out to test Einstein’s prediction for the degree to which the
Sun would deflect light coming from a background star during
an eclipse. The experiment was significant because it tested a
65
significant prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity:
Because the gravity of a massive object, such as the Sun,
actually curves the spacetime around it, it would deflect the
path of a beam of light coming from these background stars.
Lecture 8: Science versus Pseudoscience

66
o
As it turned out, Eddington’s measurement error was as great
as the effect he was measuring. As Stephen Hawking described
it: “The British team’s measurement had been sheer luck,
or a case of knowing the result they wanted to get, not an
uncommon occurrence in science.”
o
Of course, science includes a self-correcting mechanism
to circumvent the confirmation bias, and that is that other
scientists will check the results or rerun the experiment.
Another example of bias in science comes from a famous paper
in the history of psychology, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,”
written by Stanford University psychologist David Rosenhan and
published in the prestigious journal Science in 1973.
o The paper describes an experiment in which eight people—
none of whom had any history of mental illness—entered
mental hospitals and reported that they had brief auditory
hallucinations. All eight were admitted; seven were diagnosed
as schizophrenic and one as manic-depressive. After admission,
the “patients” were instructed to tell the truth, act normally, and
claim that the hallucinations had stopped.
o
Despite the fact that the nurses reported the patients as friendly,
cooperative, and exhibiting “no abnormal indications,” none of
the hospital psychiatrists or staff caught on to the experiment.
The diagnostic belief bias was pervasive. After an average stay
of 19 days, all of Rosenhan’s shills were discharged with a
diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission.”
o
How did the pathology belief system transmogrify normal into
abnormal behavior? Rosenhan explained: “Given that the patient
is in the hospital, he must be psychologically disturbed. And
given that he is disturbed, continuous writing [note-taking on
the part of the shills] must be behavioral manifestation of that
disturbance, perhaps a subset of the compulsive behaviors that
are sometimes correlated with schizophrenia.”

o
In a subsequent experiment to test the reverse power of
diagnostic belief, Rosenhan contacted staff at a mental
institution who had asserted that they would never have fallen
for the ploy in the original experiment. Rosenhan told them
that over the course of the next three months, he would send in
one or more pseudopatients, with the staff instructed to record
which patients they thought were fake.
o
Once again demonstrating the power of belief to interpret the
data in light of the diagnostic tool, out of 193 patients admitted
to this hospital, 41 were classified as impostors by at least one
staff member, with an additional 42 classified as suspected
fakes. In fact, no pseudopatients were sent to the institution!
o
Rosenhan concluded: “It is clear that we cannot distinguish
the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals. The hospital
itself imposes a special environment in which the meaning of
behavior can easily be misunderstood.” In other words, what
you believe is what you see. The label is the behavior. Theory
molds data, and concepts determine percepts.
For these reasons, science insists on complete honesty and
transparency in research. In fact, among scientists, there is
what Richard Feynman called “a principle of scientific thought
that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning
over backwards.” According to Feynman, “If you’re doing an
experiment, you should report everything that you think might
make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other
causes that could possibly explain your results.”
67

Feynman’s admonition is a variation on assuming the null
hypothesis—that an idea or finding is probably not true and that we
should always be cautious of bias in ourselves, as well as others.

It is important to recognize the fallibility of science and the
scientific method. But within this fallibility lies the greatest strength
of science: self-correction. Whether a mistake is made honestly
or dishonestly, whether a fraud is unknowingly or knowingly
perpetrated, in time, it will be flushed out of the system by lack of
external verification.
Important Terms
cold reading: A type of mentalism in which someone “reads” someone else
“cold,” having never met the subject. It is a trick used by psychics and others
to make it seem as if they have ESP.
Lecture 8: Science versus Pseudoscience
null hypothesis: The assumption or default position that the hypothesis
under investigation is not true (null) until proven otherwise.
principle of positive evidence: This principle states that a claimant must
have positive evidence in favor of a theory, not just negative evidence
against rival theories.
UFO: Unidentified flying object. The key word here is “unidentified,” which
is not synonymous with “extraterrestrial,” even though many people assume
that if an object cannot be identified as something from this world, then it
must be from another world.
warm reading: A type of mentalism in which someone does a reading of
someone else by stating information that is true for nearly everyone.
Suggested Reading
Collins and Pinch, The Golem.
Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
68
Hawking, A Brief History of Time.
Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias.”
Randi, Flim-Flam!
Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places.”
Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things.
Questions to Consider
1. What are cold readings and warm readings?
2. In what way do selective memory and the confirmation bias operate
during a psychic reading?
3. What is the null hypothesis?
4. What is the difference between negative and positive evidence?
5. Who has the burden of proof in science, the person making the claim or
the person hearing about the claim?
69
Comparing SETI and UFOlogy
Lecture 9
T
Lecture 9: Comparing SETI and UFOlogy
hroughout this course, we have made a distinction between science
and pseudoscience as a way of thinking about thinking—that is,
exploring why some methods of thinking are better than others in
terms of understanding how the world works. A classic case study in scientific
and unscientific thought can be found in a comparison between those who
search for UFOs in the belief that they are extraterrestrial spaceships and
those who search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. Neither
group has found any evidence of aliens, yet most scientists think that one
group is practicing science while the other is practicing pseudoscience. In
this lecture, we’ll explore the difference between UFOlogy and SETI—the
search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The Fermi Paradox
 Based on the 16th-century Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus’s
discovery that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, the
Copernican principle holds that our planet has no special status
in the cosmos, that we are not special, and that if the laws of nature
operate elsewhere in the cosmos as they do here, then planets such
as Earth and life such as ours should be typical and common.

70
With the Copernican principle in mind, the Italian physicist Enrico
Fermi proposed what has come to be known as the Fermi paradox:
If there are lots of extraterrestrial intelligences out there and if at
least some of them have figured out how to create self-replicating
robotic spacecraft or developed practical interstellar space travel,
and assuming that at least some of those intelligences are millions of
years ahead of us on an evolutionary time scale, their technologies
would be advanced enough to have found us by now—but they
haven’t. Where is everyone?
UFOs and the Roswell Incident
 One answer to the Fermi paradox is that aliens are already here.
According to polls and surveys, at least one-third of people believe
that UFOs represent the spaceships of extraterrestrial aliens.

The modern interest in UFOs began on June 24, 1947, when a
man named Kenneth Arnold was flying his private plane over the
Cascade Mountains in Washington State and saw nine shiny objects
moving across the sky. Arnold initially described them as flying like
“geese in formation” but later added that the objects were “crescent
shaped” and that they “moved like a saucer would if you skipped it
across the water.” An Associated Press story about the incident then
misquoted Arnold as describing what he saw as “flying saucers.”

The AP story was picked up by more than 150 newspapers, and
soon after, hundreds of flying saucer reports appeared. During this
frenzy, a rancher named William Brazel, working outside Roswell,
New Mexico, discovered some unusual debris scattered on the
ground. Brazel notified the local sheriff, saying that he might have
discovered the remains of one of the flying saucers.

The story quickly reached the Roswell Army Air Field, at which
point a lieutenant named Walter Haut sent out a press release
stating that a “flying disc” had been recovered at the ranch. Haut
had not seen the debris himself, but his press release launched the
most famous UFO case in history: the Roswell incident. Shortly
afterward, a more accurate description of what was found on the
ranch appeared in the local newspaper, and the military concluded
that the debris was the remains of a weather balloon. That was the
end of the story for the next 30 years.

Roswell didn’t capture the attention of the U.S. public until 1980,
when the National Enquirer ran a sensationalist story about
the incident. The story was followed by a popular television
documentary called UFOs Are Real, and the publication of a book
called The Roswell Incident, outlining a government cover-up of the
discovery of a crashed alien spacecraft in the New Mexico desert.
71
Lecture 9: Comparing SETI and UFOlogy
Since then, thousands of articles, books, and television shows have
kept the Roswell myth alive.

What really happened at Roswell is representative of what seems
to happen repeatedly in UFO incidents and other examples
of pseudoscience: facts are distorted, whether mistakenly or
intentionally; misguided theories are built on the distortions; and
reasonable denials provoke accusations of cover-ups that only
spawn new theories.

In fact, the debris discovered at the ranch in Roswell was not the
remains of a weather balloon, as reported by the military. It was the
remains of an experiment with high-altitude spy balloons designed
to detect Soviet nuclear bomb tests in the upper atmosphere.

UFOlogists make much of the fact that the government lied about
what happened at Roswell, mistaking military secrets for UFO
evidence. But of course, this was the period of the Cold War, and
the U.S. government was understandably disinclined to publicly
announce that it was carrying on surveillance of the Soviet Union
nuclear program.
Alien Abductions
 Closely related to UFO sightings are the claims of alien abduction
that appear in supermarket tabloids. Whitley Strieber wrote a
bestselling account of his abduction, Communion. He is also a
writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. Of course, skill
at writing fiction would certainly equip Streiber to concoct alien
abduction stories, but is it also possible that his mind invented those
stories without his approval?

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As anyone who has ever served on a jury can tell you, the line
between conscious fiction and subconscious imagination is a fine
one. Reality and fantasy may blur in the recesses of the mind and
come to the forefront under certain conditions, such as hypnosis
and sleep. Thus, it may be no accident that hypnosis and sleep play
a role in many abduction stories.

o
Many abduction experiences are “remembered” years or
decades after the fact through a technique called hypnotic
regression. The technique involves hypnotizing a subject and
asking him or her to imagine regressing back in time to retrieve
a memory from the past. The subject is encouraged to play
the memory back on the imaginary screen of the mind, as if
watching a movie of his or her own experiences.
o
A video playback system is not, however, an accurate
representation of the way memory works. Memories are
formed as part of a process of making connections between
things and events in the environment. Repetitive associations
between memories generate new dendritic and synaptic
connections between neurons, which are then strengthened
through additional repetition or weakened through disuse.
o
When an alien contactee is “recovering” a memory of an
abduction experience under hypnosis, it’s fair to ask: What
is actually being recovered? Analysis of hypnotic regression
tapes used by abduction “therapists” shows that they ask
leading questions and construct imaginary scenarios; their
subjects may then combine elements of ordinary experience
with suggested stories or concoct an entirely artificial event
that never happened.
Abduction experiences that are not generated through hypnotic
regression typically occur late at night or early in the morning during
sleep cycles that strongly resemble hypnagogic or hypnopompic
hallucinations. These experiences appear to be related to lucid
dreams and sleep paralysis, which have been well documented
among subjects in experiments and patients in sleep labs and
contain most of the components of the abduction experience.
o Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations occur in the
fuzzy borderlands between wakefulness and sleep, when our
conscious brain slips into unconsciousness as we fall asleep
or transitions into wakefulness from sleep. Multiple sensory
modalities may be involved, including seeing and hearing
73
things that are not actually present, such as speckles, lines,
geometrical patterns, and representational images or such
sounds as a doorbell or even fragments of speech.
SETI

74
Lucid dreams are stronger still, including dreams in which the
sleeping person is aware that he or she is asleep and dreaming
but can participate in and alter the dream.
o
Sleep paralysis is a type of lucid dream in which the dreamer,
aware of the dream, also senses paralysis, pressure on the
chest, the presence of a being in the room, or the experience of
floating, flying, falling, or
leaving the body, with an
emotional component that
includes an element of
terror but sometimes also
excitement, exhilaration,
or ecstasy.
Stories of UFOs and alien
abductions represent a sad
ignorance on the part of an
appalling number of people as
to how science really works.
That ignorance too often
manifests itself in a distrust
of scientific institutions and
findings and a lack of public
support for truly important
scientific research, including
the scientific search for
extraterrestrial intelligences.
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 9: Comparing SETI and UFOlogy

o
Scientific research on stories
of UFOs and alien abductions
indicates that these phenomena
are far more likely to be the result
of known psychological effects
of terrestrial beings than the
unknown physical characteristics
of extraterrestrial beings.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) began in
earnest in 1960 when the Cornell University astronomer Frank
Drake conducted the first search with the 26-meter radio telescope
at Green Bank, West Virginia.
o The following year, the first SETI conference was held, from
which Drake compiled a list of factors that would have to come
together for intelligent, communicating civilizations to evolve
and make contact with us.
o
These factors were plugged into what is now known as the
Drake equation for estimating the number of technological
civilizations that reside in our galaxy: N = R fp ne fl fi fc L.
o
What the Drake formula basically says is that the number
of technological civilizations in our galaxy is likely to be a
function of a number of factors: the rate of formation of stars
suitable for life as we know it, the fraction of those stars with
planets, the number of planets that are Earth-like, and so on.
o
In the SETI literature, a figure of 10 percent is often used
for the different factors in the equation, where in a galaxy
of 100 billion stars, there will be 10 billion Sun-like stars, 1
billion Earth-like planets, 100 million planets with life, 10
million planets with intelligent life, and 1 million planets with
intelligent life capable of radio technology.

There’s a good chance that we might make contact with an
extraterrestrial intelligence in the next several years or decades.
According to Frank Drake, our searches today are 100 trillion times
more powerful than they were 50 years ago, with no end to the
improvements in sight.

Yet for all the promise of their work, SETI scientists never claim
to know that aliens are out there. Why not? Because they have no
evidence yet. This is why scientists say that SETI is science and
UFOlogy is pseudoscience. SETI assumes the null hypothesis that
aliens do not exist until contact is made, whereas UFOlogy rejects
the null hypothesis outright by starting with the assumption that
contact has already been made based on anecdotes alone.
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Important Terms
Copernican principle: A principle based on the discovery of the 16th-century
Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus that the Earth is not the center of
the solar system. The principle holds that our planet has no special status
in the cosmos, that we are not special, and that if the laws of nature operate
elsewhere in the cosmos as they do here, then planets such as Earth and life
such as ours should be typical and common.
Lecture 9: Comparing SETI and UFOlogy
Drake equation: Equation proposed in 1961 by the radio astronomer Frank
Drake for estimating the number of technological civilizations that reside
in our galaxy: N = R fp ne fl fi fc L. The variables are as follows: N = the
number of communicative civilizations, R = the rate of formation of suitable
stars, fp = the fraction of those stars with planets, ne = the number of Earthlike planets per solar system, fl = the fraction of planets with life, fi = the
fraction of planets with intelligent life, fc = the fraction of planets with
communicating technology, L = the lifetime of communicating civilizations.
Fermi’s paradox: Named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who first
proposed the problem: Assuming the Copernican principle that we are not
special, abundant extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) should exist; if so, then
at least some of these ETIs would have figured out self-replicating robotic
spacecraft and/or practical interstellar space travel themselves. Assuming
that at least some of those ETIs would be millions of years ahead of us on
an evolutionary time scale, their technologies would be advanced enough to
have found us by now, but they haven’t, so… where are they?
hypnagogic hallucination: Delusional mental states that occur just after
falling asleep, as the conscious brain slips into unconsciousness. In this fuzzy
borderland between wakefulness and sleep, people report seeing and hearing
things that are not actually present, such as speckles, lines, geometrical
patterns, representational images, and voices and sounds.
hypnopompic hallucination: Delusional mental states that occur just before
waking up, as the conscious brain emerges from the unconsciousness of
sleep. In this fuzzy borderland between sleep and wakefulness, people report
76
seeing and hearing things that are not actually present, such as speckles,
lines, geometrical patterns, representational images, and voices and sounds.
hypnotic regression: A technique in which a subject is hypnotized and
asked to imagine regressing back in time to retrieve a memory from the past
and then play it back on the imaginary screen of the mind. The technique is
unreliable as a method of memory retrieval.
lucid dream: A dream in which the sleeping person is aware that he or she is
asleep and dreaming but can participate in and alter the dream itself.
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI): The SETI Institute
is based in Mountain View, California, and is the largest and most active
organization searching for signals from extraterrestrials.
sleep paralysis: A type of lucid dream in which dreamers are generally
not aware that they are dreaming but, rather, have the perception of being
awake and in bed. They often feel paralyzed, have difficulty breathing, feel
pressure on the chest, and sense the presence of another being in the room.
Additionally, they sometimes feel themselves floating, flying, falling, or
leaving the body, with an emotional component that includes an element of
terror but sometimes also excitement, exhilaration, rapture, or sexual arousal.
Suggested Reading
Achenbach, Captured by Aliens.
Baker, “The Aliens among Us.”
Basalla, Civilized Life in the Universe.
Clancy, Abducted.
Davies, Are We Alone?
Dick, Plurality of Worlds.
———, The Biological Universe.
Michaud, Contact with Alien Civilizations.
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Plank, The Emotional Significance of Imaginary Beings.
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Swift, SETI Pioneers.
Webb, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where Is Everybody?
Questions to Consider
1. What is the Drake equation, and how is it used to estimate the probability
of making contact with ETIs?
2. If the odds are great that ETIs exist, why have we not yet made contact?
Where is everyone?
3. What is more likely, that UFOs represent extraterrestrial beings from
another planet or terrestrial aircraft and other atmospheric anomalies
from this planet?
4. What is more likely, that alien abduction experiences represent
Lecture 9: Comparing SETI and UFOlogy
extraterrestrial beings contacting humans in the middle of the night during
sleep or lucid dreams and sleep anomalies, such as sleep paralysis?
5. Why do scientists tend to think of SETI efforts as good science whereas
they consider UFOlogy to be pseudoscience?
78
Comparing Evolution and Creationism
Lecture 10
I
n the last lecture, we looked at the scientific and pseudoscientific search
for aliens and extraterrestrial intelligences. Now, we turn our attention
to a much more serious subject that has important political and cultural
ramifications for science, education, and society: the debate between the
theory of evolution and creationism. It’s a debate that reveals the challenge
that science and skepticism still face whenever they introduce new ideas
that call long-held beliefs into question. It also reveals the persistence—and
perniciousness—of wrong thinking and superstition. In this lecture, we’ll
track the battle between evolution and creationism in four rounds.
Round 1: The Banning of Evolution
 One of the most famous trials in courtroom history—the Scopes
Trial—was the result of the passage by the state legislature in
Tennessee of the Butler Act in 1925, outlawing the teaching of
evolution in any public schools of the state.

The Scopes Trial was instigated by the fledgling American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU), which initially saw the Butler Act as a
simple violation of First Amendment rights.
o On one side of the dock was the most famous defense attorney
of his era, Clarence Darrow. On the other side was three-time
presidential candidate and Christian fundamentalist orator
William Jennings Bryan. Covering the trial for the Baltimore
Sun was the unapologetically cynical reporter H. L. Mencken.
o

The young man on trial was John Thomas Scopes, a substitute
teacher who volunteered to challenge Tennessee’s “antievolution” law.
Most people think that Scopes and science scored a victory in
Tennessee, but in fact, it was the intention of the ACLU for Scopes
to lose, which would have led to an appeal to the Tennessee State
79
Supreme Court and, eventually, a hearing in the U.S. Supreme
Court. Scopes did lose, but Tennessee state legislators used a
technicality to prevent an appeal from reaching the state supreme
court. Thus, the ACLU never had a chance to take the case to the
high court and use it to shape federal law.
Lecture 10: Comparing Evolution and Creationism

80
It’s easy to dismiss the anti-evolution position as sheer ignorance,
but William Jennings Bryan’s story reveals interesting roots for the
fear that many people still hold about evolution.
o A liberal and free thinker on many other issues, Bryan took
a stand against evolutionary theory after the First World
War, when he became aware of the use of social Darwinism
to justify militarism, imperialism, and the pseudoscience of
eugenics. Eugenics advocated the elimination of undesirable
characteristics from the human race through selective breeding.
o
Bryan abhorred the idea, which was outlined in a book of the
time called Headquarters Nights, a recounting of its author’s
evenings spent with German military and intellectual leaders.
These leaders justified their militarism and imperialistic
expansionism with classic social Darwinism—the national
survival of the fittest, improvement of the superior Germanic
race, and elimination of unfit races.
o
Bryan became concerned for both his faith and his country.
The enemy, in his mind, was not Germany but evolutionary
theory, and Scopes’s crime was to pass this poison on to the
next generation.
o
In his promotion of Christian teachings over evolutionary
theory, Bryan clearly stood in the way of what scientists would
call progress. But it’s worth noting that he also took a stand
against the line of thinking that eventually led to the genocidal
policies of Nazi Germany.
Round 2: Equal Time for Genesis and Darwin
 Ambivalence toward evolution in the United States kept the theory
out of American schools until the late 1950s. That situation changed
dramatically and suddenly on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet
Union launched Sputnik 1, the first orbiting artificial satellite.
Sputnik announced to America that we were falling behind in
science and created a renaissance in American science education,
during which evolutionary theory worked its way back into the
mainstream of public education.

In 1961, the National Science Foundation, in conjunction with the
Biological Science Curriculum Study, outlined a basic program for
teaching the theory of evolution and published a series of biology
books whose common thread was the theory.

Creationists responded with a new approach in which they
demanded “equal time” for the Genesis story, along with the theory
of evolution. They insisted that evolution was “only” a theory, not a
fact, and should be designated as such.

In 1965, a high school biology teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas,
Susan Epperson, filed a suit against the state on the grounds that
an anti-evolution bill passed in her state in 1928 violated her rights
to free speech. In a later appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the
Arkansas law was interpreted as an attempt to establish a religious
position in a public classroom and was, therefore, overturned.
Round 3: Equal Time for Creation Science and Evolution Science
 In the next round of the conflict, religious references to biblical
scripture were abandoned by a new group of creationists who
attempted to make purely scientific arguments for creation, which
they called “creation science” and contrasted with “evolution
science.” Two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed laws
requiring schools to give creation science equal time. Once again,
the ACLU was at the forefront of combating these laws, insisting
that they were attempts to breach the wall separating church and
state in public schools.
81

In 1986, the famous case of Edwards v. Aguillard, originating in
Louisiana, was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU
initially took a minimalist approach by arguing that creationists have
a religious agenda, but two justices countered that as long as someone
is teaching good science, his or her religious beliefs are irrelevant.
o This led the ACLU to argue that creation science isn’t science.
For this, it relied on an amicus curiae—or “friend of the court”—
brief submitted to the Supreme Court by 72 Nobel laureates, 17
state academies of science, and 7 other scientific organizations.
o
In June of 1987, the court held that Louisiana’s anti-evolution
legislation “is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 10: Comparing Evolution and Creationism

The brief forcefully argued that creation science does not
meet the criteria of genuine science. It set forth a definition of
science, outlined the scientific method, explained the criteria
for advancing from a hypothesis to a theory, and contrasted
science with the kind of faith-based claims made by the
proponents of creation science.
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court found Louisiana’s anti-evolution law
unconstitutional, with two justices, Antonin Scalia and William
Rehnquist, dissenting.
82
Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular
purpose” and that “[t]he Act impermissibly endorses religion
by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being
created humankind.”

This decision set the precedent that the government cannot force
public school teachers to teach a doctrine as scientific when the
scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that it is not science.
That was the death knell of creation science, which only led to the
fourth round of the dispute: evolution versus intelligent design.
Round 4: Intelligent Design Creationism
 In the 1990s, creationists evolved a new strategy of arguing that
living organisms exhibit features that appear to be designed. They
have been careful not to identify who the designer might be, but
they are nearly all Christians who personally believe the designer to
be the God of Abraham.

Intelligent design creationists have produced a large number of
arguments that scientists have rebutted one by one. In general,
their arguments follow this pattern: (1) X looks designed; (2)
it’s not clear how X was designed naturally; (3) therefore, X was
designed supernaturally.

The intelligent design creationist argument is sometimes called the
“God of the gaps” argument: Wherever an apparent gap exists in
scientific knowledge, God injects a miracle. This is not, of course,
allowed in science. Scientific research proceeds in accordance
with methodological naturalism; this principle holds that life is
the result of natural processes in a system of material causes and
effects that does not allow or need the introduction of supernatural
forces. This fundamental concept is rejected by advocates of
intelligent design.

University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, the
founding father of the intelligent design movement, has accused
scientists of unfairly defining God out of the picture by limiting
83
the search for causes to only natural causes. He complained that
scientists who postulate that there are supernatural forces at work in
the natural world are pushed out of the scientific arena on the basis
of nothing more than a fundamental rule of the game. To correct
this perceived injustice, he urged that the rules be changed to allow
methodological supernaturalism.
Lecture 10: Comparing Evolution and Creationism
Dispelling the Fear of Evolution
 As the history of the evolution-versus-creationism debate
demonstrates all too clearly, logic is not enough to end a dispute
with the opponents of scientific findings if the logic of the
findings is not what the opponents really oppose. The opponents
of evolution seem to fear what the theory implies about humanity,
God, and morality, and until they can be persuaded that their fear is
misplaced, it seems likely that the dispute will continue.
84

Those who fear evolution seem to believe that it implies God does
not exist, and without a belief in God, there can be no morality or
meaning. But such fears are unfounded. The theory of evolution is
not inconsistent with God or the creation of the world by God. Nor
does what the theory indicate about when the world was created
make a difference; if God is eternal, what difference does it make
when he created the universe? Further, why should it matter how
God created life—whether through a miraculous spoken word or
through the natural forces of the universe that God created?

Creationism and intelligent design theory appear to be not only bad
science but also bad theology. These views reduce the deity to a
mere engineer, a garage tinkerer, a designer piecing together worlds
and life forms out of available materials but not necessarily the
creator of the original materials.

If there is a God, the avenue to him is not through science and
reason but through faith and revelation. If there is a God, he will
be so wholly other that no science can reach him, especially not the
science that calls itself intelligent design.

Religious believers should embrace science, especially evolutionary
theory, for what it has revealed about the magnificence of the
divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors. We have
learned much in 4,000 years, and that knowledge should never be
dreaded or denied. Instead, science should be cherished by all who
value human understanding and wisdom. Skepticism encourages
people to do just that.
Important Terms
intelligent design, intelligent design creationism: The belief that the order,
purpose, and design found in the world is proof of an intelligent designer
and that the description of the creation in the Bible roughly matches that of
modern science, although evolution is limited in what it can create.
methodological naturalism: The principle of science that holds that life
is the result of natural processes in a system of material causes and effects
that does not allow or need the introduction of supernatural forces. This
fundamental concept is rejected by advocates of intelligent design.
Suggested Reading
Amicus curiae Brief in Edwards v. Aguillard.
Coyne, Why Evolution Is True.
Futuyma, Science on Trial.
Gilkey, ed., Creationism on Trial.
Godfrey, ed., Scientists Confront Creationism.
Gould, Rocks of Ages.
Grabiner and Miller, “Effects of the Scopes Trial.”
Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature.
Miller, Finding Darwin’s God.
Nelkin, The Creation Controversy.
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Numbers, The Creationists.
Shermer, Why Darwin Matters.
Questions to Consider
1. What are the four stages of the evolution-creationism controversy from
Darwin to the present?
2. Why do some faiths reject the theory of evolution while others accept it
fully as God’s way of creation?
3. What were the deeper implications for science and society of the Scopes
“Monkey Trial”?
4. In the famous Louisiana creationism trial, what did the U.S. Supreme
Court decide about whether or not creationism deserves equal time with
evolution in public school science classes?
Lecture 10: Comparing Evolution and Creationism
5. Does accepting the theory of evolution mean that one has to be an atheist?
86
Science, History, and Pseudohistory
Lecture 11
T
his lecture addresses the topic of bad history. Does this topic fit in
with our exploration of skepticism and science? The answer is yes;
a skeptical outlook is as important in guarding against bad history
as it is in countering the claims of pseudoscience. Bad history not only
misinforms us about our past, but as we’ll see, it can also be used by people
who have their own agendas to distort our understanding of the present.
For that reason, history’s findings, like those of science, must always be
subjected to careful and ongoing analysis.
Convergence of Evidence
 The primary method that both historical scientists and historians use
to deduce what happened in the past is convergence of evidence,
in which multiple lines of evidence are tracked to see whether they
converge toward one common conclusion or show no pattern at all.

Cosmologists, for example, reconstruct the history of the universe
through a convergence of evidence from cosmology, astronomy,
astrophysics, spectroscopy, general relativity, and quantum
mechanics. Geologists reconstruct the history of the Earth
through a convergence of evidence from geology, geophysics,
and geochemistry.

Traditional historians do something similar: They weave a narrative
tapestry of a historical time or event from diaries, letters, memos,
receipts, manuscripts, newspaper reports, magazine articles,
contemporary books, photographs, radio and television broadcasts,
and other modes of communication.

Even though the inferential sciences and history itself don’t fit the
model of experimental laboratory sciences, researchers in these
fields can still test hypotheses. The field of biblical archaeology, for
example, searches for data to confirm or refute stories in the Bible.
87

One popular story that has been tested and so far failed all tests is
that of the lost continent of Atlantis. This story, which comes to us
through the writings of Plato, is a good introduction to the stark
differences between history and pseudohistory, as well as those
between science and pseudoscience.
o The tale of Atlantis appears in the Socratic dialogue Timaeus.
Plato’s dialogist, Critias, explains that Egyptian priests told
the Greek wise man Solon that his ancestors once defeated a
mighty empire called Atlantis, located just beyond the “Pillars
of Hercules” (usually identified by Atlantologists as the Strait
of Gibraltar). After the defeat, the island of Atlantis was said to
have disappeared into the sea.
o
Lecture 11: Science, History, and Pseudohistory

Many people have claimed to have found the lost continent,
but no convincing evidence has ever been presented that it
even existed. It seems likely that Plato created the story as a
warning to his fellow Athenians against becoming too warlike
and corrupt.
The story of Atlantis is just one of many alternative histories,
usually offered by those who do not follow the scientific protocols
of historians and archaeologists. Instead, they propose pictures of
antiquity that are more like science fiction or fantasy.
Scientific History versus Pseudohistory
 As in the fields of science, hypotheses in history are formulated
and then checked for consistency and accountability with available
evidence. Conclusions are provisional and continually checked
against new evidence.

88
In contrast, alternative historians typically distort the process to
fit their beliefs in a number of ways: (1) presenting only evidence
that fits a preconceived belief and ignoring evidence that doesn’t
fit, (2) highlighting anomalies while ignoring the vast body of
non-anomalous evidence, (3) taking evidence out of context, (4)
overusing speculation and conjecture, and (5) assuming that if
scientific historians cannot explain something, then the alternative
historian’s theory must be correct.

Alternative historians and archaeologists also make a number of
mistakes in thinking that lead them down the path from history to
pseudohistory. These mistakes include the following:
o Hyper-diffusionism of people beyond their capabilities or
motivations. Alternative histories typically have people
traveling all over the world, using technologies and knowledge
not available in their time.
o
Denial of independent discovery or invention of tools, pottery,
art, and masonry. Alternative historians tend to think that if two
tools (such as axes), architectural designs (such as pyramids),
or works of art (such as statues) are similar, that must mean
that two different people made contact with each other in the
distant past. But given the simplicity and ordinariness of most
of these tools and structures, that is not necessarily the case.
o
Denial of the possibility of independent similarity of words,
symbols, and language sounds. Again, there are only so many
variations on a theme in human symbols, sounds, and words,
and the fact that two symbols or words appear similar to us
does not necessarily mean that they represent ancient contact.
o
Misinterpretation of natural markings on rocks for human
inscriptions or misinterpretation of human doodlings for
inscriptions. People like to draw things that are important in
the environment, and naturally, this includes large animals; of
course, drawings of, say, European and North American species
may vaguely resemble each other. Further, we should never
underestimate the capacity of people to aimlessly doodle; some
ancient “inscriptions” may, in fact, mean nothing.
o
Acceptance of fakes and hoaxes. Never discount intentional
deception, particularly for financial gain, which can be
substantial when dealing with ancient art and statuary.
89
Holocaust Denial: The Dark Side of Pseudohistory
 The problem with studying human history is that it has an additional
layer of emotion and bias because it is about “us,” and we all like
to spin narratives to make ourselves look good and the other guy
look bad.

As well, there is a cognitive bias called the curse of knowledge,
in which better-informed people find it difficult to think about
problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people. Once you
know something, you can’t un-know it, and knowing it influences
how you interpret it.
o This is a problem for historians. Once you know the outcome
of, say, the First or Second World War, it’s hard not to see
the “inevitability” of the outcome going all the way back to
the beginning, but of course, the players in the drama had no
such hindsight.
Lecture 11: Science, History, and Pseudohistory
o
90
This is why historical revisionism is different from historical
denial or pseudohistory. Historians may legitimately revise
their views of history based on new evidence or other factors.

Holocaust deniers have a different agenda than historians. Their
aim is to minimize the political standing of Israel, reduce the
influence of Jews in America, and in general, remove any moral
leverage associated with having suffered genocide. They do not
seek to better understand what happened during the Holocaust but
to rewrite the past for present personal and political reasons.

Holocaust deniers attack the three central tenets that define
the Holocaust:
o The Nazis intended to carry out genocide based primarily on
race. To this, the deniers respond that there was no Nazi policy
to exterminate European Jewry. The Final Solution to the
“Jewish question” was deportation out of the Reich. Because
of early successes in the war that allowed Germany to expand
its borders, the Reich was confronted with more Jews than it
could deport. Because of later failures in the war in key battles
with the Allies, the Nazis confined Jews in ghettos and, finally,
concentration camps.

o
The Nazis carried out a highly technical, well-organized
extermination program using gas chambers and crematoria,
along with other killing methods. To this central fact, Holocaust
deniers respond that the main causes of death were disease
and starvation, brought on primarily by Allied destruction of
German supply lines and resources at the end of the war. Gas
chambers were used only for delousing clothing and blankets,
and the crematoria were used only to dispose of the bodies of
people who had died from disease, starvation, or other causes.
o
An estimated 5 to 6 million Jews were killed. Holocaust deniers
claim that 300,000 to 2 million Jews died or were killed in
ghettos and camps.
Scientific historians address these claims as follows:
o In any historical event, functional outcomes rarely match
original intentions, which are always difficult to prove; thus,
historians should focus on contingent outcomes more than
intentions. The functional process of carrying out the Final
Solution evolved over time, driven by such contingencies as
increasing political power, growing confidence, the unfolding
of the war, and so on. The outcome was millions of Jewish
dead, whether extermination of European Jewry was explicitly
ordered or just tacitly approved.
o
Physical and documentary evidence corroborates that the gas
chambers and crematoria were mechanisms of extermination.
o
The estimate of 5 to 6 million killed is general but well
substantiated. The figures are derived by calculating the
number of Jews reported living in Europe, transported to
camps, liberated from camps, killed in Einsatzgruppen actions,
and alive after the war.
91

92
o
Alternative historians exploit errors made by scholars who
make opposing arguments, implying that because a few of their
opponents’ conclusions were wrong, all such conclusions must
be wrong.
o
Alternative historians and deniers use quotations, usually taken
out of context, from prominent mainstream figures to buttress
their own positions.
o
Deniers mistake genuine,
honest debates between
scholars about certain points
within a field as disputes
about the existence of the
entire field.
o
Finally, deniers focus on what
is not known and ignore what
is known, emphasize data that
fit and discount data that do
not fit.
The book Guns, Germs, and Steel
by UCLA scientist Jared Diamond
serves as a positive example of the
convergence-of-evidence method
used in conjunction with the
comparative method. The book
© Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock.
Lecture 11: Science, History, and Pseudohistory
Alternative History versus Good Historical Science
 Methodologies of Holocaust deniers and other alternative historians
include the following:
o Alternative historians concentrate on their opponents’ weak
points, while rarely making definitive statements about their
own positions. Deniers emphasize the inconsistencies among
eyewitness accounts, for example.
Holocaust deniers concentrate
on what we do not know
about the gas chambers and
disregard eyewitness accounts
and forensic tests that support
the fact that the gas chambers
were used for mass murder.
proposes a biogeographical theory to explain the differential rates
of development between civilizations around the globe over the past
13,000 years.
Important Terms
alternative history: Claims about the past that are usually at odds with what
mainstream professional historians have come to conclude about the past.
comparative method: A historical method of hypothesis testing wherein
the historian examines natural experiments that took place in history with
an eye toward finding similarities and differences to explore similar or
different outcomes.
convergence-of-evidence method: Sometimes called the “consilience of
inductions,” this is the process of examining converging evidence from
multiple lines of inquiry to determine whether it leads to a single conclusion.
curse of knowledge: A cognitive bias in which better-informed people find
it difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed
people. Once we know something, we can’t un-know it, and knowing it
influences how we interpret it.
pseudohistory: A type of pseudoscience in which practitioners appear to use
the rigorous methods of scientific history but, in fact, selectively choose to
present only limited evidence in support of a particular belief about the past.
Suggested Reading
Fagan, Archaeological Fantasies.
Feder, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries.
Fritze, Invented Knowledge.
Shermer, Denying History.
93
Steibing, Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, and Other Popular
Theories about Man’s Past.
Williams, Fantastic Archaeology.
Questions to Consider
1. Was there a lost continent of Atlantis?
2. Who really discovered America?
3. How do we know that the Holocaust happened?
4. How do we know that anything in the past happened?
5. Why do mainstream historians tend to be skeptical of alternative histories?
6. What is the comparative method in historical studies, and how is it used
Lecture 11: Science, History, and Pseudohistory
to test historical hypotheses?
94
The Lure of Conspiracy Theories
Lecture 12
I
n the last lecture, we saw how alternative historians rewrite the past to
suit their present beliefs. One of their most common responses when
asked why mainstream historians do not accept their accounts is that
there is a vast conspiracy against them. In fact, conspiracy theorists have
accused various groups of assassinating President Kennedy, have claimed
that the Bush administration planned the 9/11 attacks, and most recently, have
accused the Obama administration of executing the Sandy Hook Elementary
School shootings as a pretense to abolish the Second Amendment. Such
fantastical claims foment suspicion and could, under the right circumstances,
cause political and social disruption. In this lecture, we’ll look at conspiracy
theories, an area in dire need of skepticism.
The Death of Princess Diana
 Within hours of Princess Diana’s tragic death in an automobile
accident in Paris, theories about what “really” happened to her
began to proliferate. Those accused of conspiring to murder the
princess included the pope and the American company DuPont;
MI6 agents; Diana’s boyfriend, Dodi Fayed (also killed in the
accident); and many others.

Two independent investigations concluded that the cause of Diana’s
death was not at all mysterious: drunk driving, speeding, and
failure to wear a seatbelt. The proliferation of conspiracy theories
surrounding her death would seem to stem from the idea that a
princess is not supposed to die in the same way as normal people.

Of course, some conspiracies are real, such as the one behind the
assassination of President Lincoln, and while it may be easy to
identify a real conspiracy with historical hindsight, it’s not always
so easy in the midst of rapidly unfolding events in real time. How
can any of us know whether a conspiracy theory is true or false?
95
Conspiracies versus Conspiracy Theories
 Let’s begin by distinguishing between a conspiracy and a conspiracy
theory. A conspiracy takes place when two or more people meet or
confer in secret to commit an illegal, treacherous, or evil act against
a third party without the third party’s knowledge or approval. A
conspiracy theory is the belief in a conspiracy that may or may
not be true.
o The destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was a
conspiracy, plotted by 19 members of al-Qaeda.
o
Lecture 12: The Lure of Conspiracy Theories

The theory that the U.S. government orchestrated 9/11 as a
pretense to war is a conspiracy theory, about which we should
be extremely skeptical.
The term “conspiracy theory” is often used derisively in newspaper
columns, on talk shows, and in political debates to indicate that
someone’s explanation for an event is highly improbable or even on
the lunatic fringe and that those who proffer such theories are most
probably crackpots. But because conspiracies do happen, we cannot
automatically dismiss any and all conspiracy theorists. What should
we believe when we encounter a conspiracy theory?
The Conspiracy Theory Detector
 Remember the principle of the null hypothesis in science: We
must assume that any theory or hypothesis we are investigating is
false until proven otherwise. Thus, the default rule of thumb with
conspiracy theories is that they are false.

96
Conspiracy theories tend to show five characteristics indicating that
they are very likely untrue:
o There is an obvious pattern of connecting the dots of events
that may or may not be connected in a causal way. Remember
the concept of patternicity—the tendency to find meaningful
patterns in random noise. When Osama bin Laden boasted
about the triumph of 9/11, we could be confident that the
pattern was real because we could follow the paper trail. But
when there is no forthcoming evidence to support a causal
connection or when the evidence is equally well explained
through some other causal chain—or through randomness—
the conspiracy theory is probably false.
o
The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy are elevated
to near superhuman power to pull off the conspiracy. We
must always remember how flawed human behavior is and
the natural tendency we all have to make mistakes. Most of
the time, in most circumstances, most people are not nearly as
powerful as we think they are.
o
The more complex the conspiracy and the more elements
involved for it to unfold successfully, the less likely it is to
be true.
o
The more people involved in the conspiracy, the less likely
it is that they will all be able to keep silent about their secret
activities.
o
The grander and more global the conspiracy is believed to be
and the more it is thought to encompass—the control of an
entire nation, economy, or political system—the less likely it
is to be true.
Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories
 Several psychological principles seem to be at work in promoting
belief in highly improbable conspiracy theories. The first of these
is patternicity. One reason people believe conspiracies is that they
identify any and all patterns as real, with little to no screening of
potentially false patterns.

Another principle at work here is agenticity, the tendency to infuse
patterns with intentional agents behind the scenes. Conspiracy
theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful
patterns and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency—
hidden forces at work that control the world.
97
Lecture 12: The Lure of Conspiracy Theories
We can add to those propensities the
confirmation bias that we discussed
in an earlier lecture. Once we have an
idea in our minds about something,
we notice only evidence that confirms
the idea and are blind to evidence that
disconfirms it.

Also in play is hindsight bias, in which
we tailor after-the-fact explanations to
what we already know happened.

Yet another reason people believe in
conspiracy theories is a psychological
principle known as cognitive
dissonance. When confronted with
contradictory evidence for their
beliefs, people don’t change their
beliefs; instead, they ratchet up the
intensity of their beliefs to overcome
the dissonance of being wrong. As
we’ve seen, highly intelligent people
are especially good at this kind of
defense of their beliefs.
© Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Thinkstock.

Belief in conspiracy
theories can be explained
in part by cognitive
dissonance; it seems
somehow inappropriate that
John F. Kennedy, the leader
of the free world, was
assassinated by Lee Harvey
Oswald, a nobody.
“Everything Happens for a Reason”
 It often seems that people who believe in one conspiracy theory
tend to believe in many others. This tendency may stem from the
belief that everything happens for a reason.

98
This observation was recently confirmed empirically by
psychologists at the University of Kent in a paper entitled “Dead and
Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” According
to the authors, once someone believes that “one massive, sinister
conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy,
[it] suggests that many such plots are possible.”

With this worldview, conspiracies can become “the default
explanation for any given event—a unitary, closed-off worldview
in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network
known as a monological belief system.”
o The term “monological” here means one elaborate narrative
conspiracy that ties everything together. A monological belief
system explains the correlations between different conspiracy
theories in the study.
o
The authors further suggest that another process is at work
here, global coherence, which overrules contradictions. They
define global coherence as “the psychological propensity to
believe that everything happens for a reason….”
Case Study in Conspiracy
 Conspiracies do happen, so we can’t automatically dismiss
them. The Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, was
gunned down by a Serbian secret society on June 28, 1914. This
assassination triggered a military buildup over the summer that led
to the outbreak of the First World War.
o The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was organized by
a secret radical organization called Black Hand, whose
political objective was the independence of Serbia from the
Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassins were backed by an
underground network of Serbian civilians and military officers
who provided them with weapons, maps, and training to pull
off the conspiracy.
o
The archduke, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was in
Sarajevo to observe military maneuvers and to open a new
state museum. On the morning of his arrival, six assassins were
posted at strategic locations in the city, but two failed to act, one
hit the wrong target, and the other three slunk away in defeat.
o
Later in the day, one of the assassins emerged from a
delicatessen where he had just eaten lunch and spotted the
archduke’s car. He shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.
99
o

That is how conspiracies usually work; they are messy events
that unfold according to real-time contingencies and often turn
on the minutia of chance and the reality of human error. Our
propensity to think otherwise—to believe that conspiracies are
well-oiled machines of Machiavellian manipulations—is to fall
into the trap of conspiratorial thinking, where the patterns are
too well delineated and the agents superhuman in knowledge
and power.
Admittedly, conspiracy theories make for compelling narrative
stories, and it may seem as if the skeptical perspective is less
satisfying because it deals in hard facts instead of speculation, but
in the end, we need skepticism because it is more important to be
right than to be suspicious.
Important Terms
Lecture 12: The Lure of Conspiracy Theories
cognitive dissonance: The uncomfortable tension that comes from holding
two conflicting thoughts at the same time.
conspiracy: When two or more people meet or confer in secret to act against
a third party.
conspiracy theory: The belief in a conspiracy that may or may not be
true. The events of 9/11 were the result of a conspiracy; by definition, 19
members of al-Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without warning us
ahead of time constitutes a conspiracy. The theory that the U.S. government
orchestrated 9/11 is a conspiracy theory.
global coherence: The psychological propensity to believe that everything
happens for a reason, there are no accidents, and that there is an overriding
force or operation at work—either natural or supernatural—that ties together
apparently discoherent events into one grand or global theory. In conspiracy
theorizing, this often manifests as the New World Order.
monological belief system: A unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs
come together in a mutually supportive network.
100
Suggested Reading
Achenbach, Captured by Aliens.
Goldwag, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies.
Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias.”
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Shermer, Denying History.
Vankin and Whalen, The Fifty Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.
Wood, Douglas, and Sutton, “Dead and Alive.”
Questions to Consider
1. What is the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?
2. Given that some conspiracy theories turn out to be real, what criteria
should we use to tell the difference between a true conspiracy theory
and a false one?
3. Which of the most popular conspiracy theories do you think are most
likely to be true—those surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination,
Princess Diana’s death, 9/11, or a government cover-up of aliens
and UFOs?
4. What is a monological belief system, and what has it to do with conspiracies?
5. Why do people tend to believe contradictory conspiracy theories?
101
Inside the Modern Cult
Lecture 13
T
his lecture explores how the power of belief can override our
rational minds and lead us into something even more potentially
dangerous than the conspiracy theories we saw in the last lecture—
cults. According to sociologists and anthropologists of religion, a cult is
a group with novel religious beliefs and a high degree of tension with the
surrounding society; a sect also experiences that tension but has traditional
religious beliefs. A cult may either die out or become a sect, which may itself
either die out or become a mainstream religion. Our concern in this lecture is
dangerous cults, such as the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, the Peoples
Temple of Jim Jones, and even Charles Manson’s Family.
Heaven’s Gate: A Case Study in Cults
 Heaven’s Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie
Nettles in 1975. The pair had come to believe that they had arrived
on Earth via a UFO from another dimension above the human.
o Members of the cult sold their possessions and lived in isolation
from their friends and families. Because sex was considered
evil, six male members voluntarily underwent castration.
Lecture 13: Inside the Modern Cult
o

102
In 1997, the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp attracted the
attention of Heaven’s Gate. The members came to believe that
suicide would allow their souls to join the mothership that they
thought was hiding behind the comet. The chilling “final exit”
speech by Marshall Applewhite was filmed on March 19, 1997.
One week later, on March 26, police found 39 members dead
in a rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
How is it possible to get normal people to sell all their possessions,
castrate themselves, and take their own lives? To understand how
these things can happen, we need to get into the mind of the cultists
and look more closely at the psychology of cults.
The Psychology of Cults
 A number of psychological factors go into the process of becoming
a cult member. As we go through these factors, consider how each
of them operates to break down the ability and willingness to think
for oneself—the foundation of skepticism.

Gradual progression with good intentions: No one joins a “cult.”
People join an organization with lofty goals and good intentions
that gradually slides into something very different from what was
apparent at the start.
o The handful of survivors of the mass suicide in the Jonestown
cult in the South American jungles of Guyana, for example,
later reflected on the wonderful organization they had
originally joined in San Francisco, in which their leader, Jim
Jones, worked closely with community leaders to help the poor
and needy.
o

Obedience to authority: In July of 1961, Yale University
psychologist Stanley Milgram began his famous experiments
to investigate obedience to authority. Subjects were asked to
administer progressively stronger electric shocks to “learners,” who
were actually accomplices of the researcher.
o Despite predictions of psychiatrists that only 1 percent of
subjects would administer the strongest shock, in fact, 65
percent did so.
o

It took many years for Jim Jones’s madness to develop, and his
control over his followers increased one small increment at a
time, until he exerted almost total control over the group.
Milgram found that gender, age, occupation, and personality
characteristics mattered little in the results, but physical
proximity and group pressure did.
Role playing: We all play different roles in our lives that change
depending on the environment. Milgram’s subjects were not
playing the role of sadistic perpetrators shocking innocent victims;
103
they were playing the role of teachers helping people learn in a
memory experiment, all in the name of science. Only when the role
called for the gradual escalation of punishment was good behavior
transformed into evil. In such small increases, we can lose touch
with reality and fail to recognize when we’ve crossed a moral line.
Characteristics of Cults
C
Lecture 13: Inside the Modern Cult
ults may exhibit a number of common characteristics,
including the following:
104

Veneration of the leader

Belief in the inerrancy of the leader

Belief in the omniscience of the leader

Discouragement of dissent

Belief that the leader or group has a method of discovering
absolute truth

Development of a system of absolute morality that is
believed to be applicable to both members and nonmembers

In-group/out-group mentality

A viewpoint that the ends justify the means, leading
members to do things they would have considered
reprehensible or unethical before joining the group

Hidden agendas, that is, beliefs and plans that are not
disclosed to potential recruits and the public

Deceit of recruits and followers, particularly with regard
to the leader or the group’s inner circle

Financial and/or sexual exploitation

Mind-altering practices, such as meditation, chanting,
denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines

Lack of accountability

Isolation from friends and families

Aggressive recruitment practices

Persuasive techniques used to recruit new members and
reinforce current beliefs.
Note that exhibiting any one of these characteristics does not mean that a group is a
cult, and no cult shows all of these characteristics.

Deindividuation: Removing individuality by taking people
out of their normal social circles (as cults do), dressing them in
identical uniforms (as the military does), or insisting that they be
“team players” (as corporations often do) sets up a situation for
remolding their behavior in the direction the leader wishes. The
conformity that results can produce impressive achievements, such
as persuading soldiers to risk their lives in battle, but when people
stop thinking skeptically for themselves, bad things can happen.
o In 1954, the social psychologists Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif
conducted a now-classic experiment at a Boy Scout camp at
Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma, in which they divided
11-year-old boys into two groups and had them compete in
various tasks over the course of a few days. Despite preexisting
friendships between many of the boys, hostilities quickly
developed along group identity lines.
105
Lecture 13: Inside the Modern Cult
o

Dehumanization: The processes of role playing and deindividuation
also set the stage for dehumanizing the “other.” It’s relatively rare
for people to commit evil deeds against those whom they consider
to be fellow in-group members, but in-groups are defined by their
out-group counterparts, and out-groups reinforce the power of the
in-group.

Compliance: This factor involves outward apparent conformity by
individuals to new group norms or an authority’s commands, even
when these individuals have not actually internalized the beliefs
as their own. In other words, they are playing the role or obeying
authority even though they do not actually believe what they are
doing is right.
o In an experiment conducted in a hospital in 1966, the
psychiatrist Charles Hofling arranged to have an unknown
physician contact nurses by phone and order them to administer
20 mg of a nonexistent drug to one of his patients. Not only was
the drug fictional, but it was not on the approved list of drugs
and the bottle clearly indicated that 10 mg was the maximum
daily dose allowed.
o

106
Acts of aggression escalated to the point where the researchers
were forced to terminate this phase of the experiment early
and introduce tasks for the boys that required cooperation
between the two groups, which just as quickly led to renewed
friendships and between-group amity.
Pre-experimental surveys showed that when given this scenario
as a hypothetical, virtually all nurses and nursing students said
they would disobey the order. Yet when Hofling actually ran
the experiment, 21 out of 22 nurses complied with the doctor’s
orders, even though they knew that doing so was wrong.
Identification: Related to conformity is identification, or the close
affiliation with others of like interest. Our social groups provide us
with a frame of reference, or norms, with which we can identify,
and any member of the group who strays from those norms risks
disapproval, isolation, or expulsion.
o In a longitudinal study in the 1930s at Bennington College
in Vermont, psychologist Theodore Newcomb tracked the
changing political attitudes of a group of entering female
students who were self-identified as conservative and whose
parents voted Republican. In the course of four years, their
politics shifted distinctly left to match those of their more
liberal classmates and professors, who became their new
reference group.
o
Of course, the influence of college on our political opinions is
a far cry from that of cultists, but the point is that there is a
normal psychology of belief that allows for outside influences
that is then capitalized on by cult leaders who are skilled
at manipulation.
o
Well-known examples of identification include the experience
of Patty Hearst with the Symbionese Liberation Army in the
1970s and that of Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped from her home
in 2002 by Mormon fundamentalist Brian David Mitchell.

Conformity: Because we evolved to be social beings, we are
hypersensitive to what others think about us and are strongly
motivated to conform to the social norms of our group. Solomon
Asch’s famous 1951 study on conformity involving the judgment
of line lengths demonstrated the power of groupthink. Much later
brain-scan studies have even identified which parts of the brain are
active under conformity versus nonconformity.

Diffusion of responsibility: Evil persists when responsibility is
diffused among others and group members assume that someone
else is minding the store or resolving the problem. For example,
numerous people at the Abu Ghraib prison knew about the torture
and abuse of prisoners, but only one man, Joseph Darby, ultimately
blew the whistle.
107
Lecture 13: Inside the Modern Cult

Social facilitation: The field of psychology recognizes a
phenomenon known as social facilitation—the tendency of people
who are engaging in similar behavior to spur one another on. When
order breaks down and the normal institutional brakes on evil are
lifted, evil is facilitated through the contagious excitement of the
group’s actions.

Pluralistic ignorance: Finally, the psychological principle known
as pluralistic ignorance may also be at work in cults and other
groups. Here, individual group members don’t believe something
but mistakenly believe that everyone else in the group believes it.
When no one speaks up, a “spiral of silence” can result that leads to
everything from binge drinking to witch hunts to deadly ideologies.

All these psychological factors operate within a larger evolved
propensity we have to divide the world into tribes of us versus them.
Results of social psychological studies suggest that this tribalism is
inherent; by nature, we want to belong. That makes the job of any
cult that wants to snare us much easier than we would like to think.
Evil Incorporated
 When we put all these factors together, we get a deadly cocktail
that poisons our ability to reason: Dehumanization produces
deindividuation, which then leads to compliance under the influence
of obedience to authority. In time, that compliance morphs into
conformity to new group norms, identification with the group, and
ultimately, the social facilitation that leads to the performance of
evil acts, especially if pluralistic ignorance runs rampant through
the group.

108
No one of these components inexorably leads to evil acts or defines
a group as a cult, but together, they form the machinery of evil
that arises under certain social conditions. This is what happened
on November 18, 1978, in the jungles of Guyana, when Jim Jones,
leader of the Peoples Temple cult, ordered the mass suicide of his
own followers by inducing them to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.

Note that at each step along the route to evil, thinking for oneself
offers an antidote. We can spot an organization’s decline from
lofty goals to madness if we pay attention. We can refuse to obey
authority. We can stay true to ourselves, even when playing a role
or joining a team. We can refuse to accept the dehumanization of
others and refuse to do what we believe is wrong. In short, we can
exercise our ability to reason and to choose.
Important Terms
conformity: The internalization of a group’s beliefs to the point where they
become one’s own.
cult: A religious group with novel religious beliefs and a high degree of
tension with the surrounding society.
dehumanization: The process of removing the humanity of people by
treating them as “others”—so different from everyone we know that they
must be effectively strangers, perhaps not even human.
deindividuation: The process of removing people’s individuality by taking
them out of their normal social circle of family and friends, dressing them
in identical uniforms, or insisting that they be team players or go along with
the program.
identification: The close affiliation with others of like interest, as well as the
normal process of acquiring social roles through modeling and role playing.
obedience to authority: The blind following of a leader or authority figure
that leads people to commit acts they would not otherwise engage in.
social facilitation: When the normal institutional brakes on behavior are
lifted, evil acts may be facilitated through the contagious excitement of the
group’s actions.
109
Suggested Reading
Allen, “The Jesus Cults.”
Cialdini, Influence.
Goldwag, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies.
Hassan, Releasing the Bonds.
Milgram, Obedience to Authority.
Sherif et al., Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation.
Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect.
Questions to Consider
1. Have you ever joined an organization that became a cult, or have you
known someone who did? Can you see any of these social psychological
factors at work in the process of someone getting deeper into
the organization?
2. What is cognitive dissonance, and how does it lead people to become even
firmer in a belief when the evidence for it declines or disappears entirely?
Lecture 13: Inside the Modern Cult
3. How is a cult defined colloquially and scientifically?
4. What are the chief characteristics of a cult?
5. Do you think you would go all the way to 450 volts in Stanley Milgram’s
famous shock experiment? If not, why not?
110
The Psychology of Religious Belief
Lecture 14
A
ccording to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 84 percent of the
world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion,
which equals about 5.9 billion people. In America, a Pew Forum
survey found that 82 percent believe in God or a universal spirit. From a
skeptic’s and a scientist’s perspective, such percentages of belief cry out for
an explanation. What human need does religion serve? Why do so many
people believe in God—however they may define that term—or in some
kind of higher power? In this lecture and the three that follow, we’ll consider
what skepticism and science can tell us about the most serious of all issues:
God, morality, and the afterlife.
Why Do People Believe in God?
 One answer to the question of why people believe in God is that our
brains are wired to find God-like patterns and agents everywhere
we look.
o In a previous lecture, we discussed the concepts of patternicity
and agenticity. Recall that patternicity is the tendency to find
meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise,
and agenticity is the tendency to infuse those patterns with
invisible intentional agents operating in the world.
o

These tendencies are most likely adaptive products of
evolution. Creatures that did not find meaningful patterns or
attribute agency to the wind in the grass often ended up as a
meal, and their genes were not passed on.
In this cognitive model, God—or, at least, the Judeo-Christian
God—is the ultimate pattern that explains everything that happens,
from the beginning of the universe to the end of time, including
and especially the fates of human lives. God is also the ultimate
intentional agent who gives the universe meaning and our
lives purpose.
111

More broadly, as an ultimate amalgam, patternicity and agenticity
could form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism,
polytheism, monotheism, and all other forms of theisms and
spiritualisms devised by humans.
Evolutionary Theory and God
 From an evolutionary standpoint, we can define religion as a social
institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity
and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate
and reciprocate among members of a community. Given the need
for the social benefits that religion provides, how might it have
come about in human history?
Lecture 14: The Psychology of Religious Belief

It’s possible that around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as tiny bands and
tribes of people began to coalesce into large chiefdoms and states,
government and religion coevolved as social institutions to codify
moral behaviors into ethical principles and legal rules. God or gods
became the ultimate enforcers of those rules.
o In the small populations of hunter-gatherer bands and tribes,
informal means of behavior control and social cohesion could
have been used by capitalizing on the moral emotions, such
as shaming someone through guilt for violating a social norm
or even excommunicating violators from the group. But when
populations grew larger, such informal means of enforcing
societal rules may have broken down. Something more formal
was needed.
o

112
Governments outlined rules in the form of laws and established
punishments for violations of those laws. Religion, whether it
was designed for this purpose or evolved into its role, presented
the rules in the form of ethical commandments and, in some
cases at least, warned of punishments for violators in the
next life.
Further evidence for the evolutionary origins of religion and belief
in God can be found in anthropological studies of meat sharing
practiced by all modern hunter-gatherer societies around the world.
o
These small communities—which can cautiously be used as
a model for our own Paleolithic ancestors—are remarkably
egalitarian. The immediate families of successful hunters get
no more meat than the rest of the families in the group.
o
In hunter-gatherer groups, individual selfish acts are effectively
counterbalanced by the combined will of the rest of the group
through the use of gossip to ridicule, shun, and even ostracize
individuals whose competitive drives and selfish motives
interfere with the overall needs of the group.
o
Thus, as the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues in his
1999 book, Hierarchy in the Forest: Egalitarianism and the
Evolution of Human Altruism, a human group is also a moral
group, in which “right” and “wrong” coincide with group
welfare and self-serving acts, respectively.
o
Elaborate rituals surrounding the enforcement of altruism and
moral behavior often entail belief in supernatural beings and
superstitious practices, as seen in the Chewong people of the
Malaysian rain forest and the ritual of food sharing known
as punen. Such rituals and beliefs evolved to reinforce group
cohesiveness and moral behavior.
o
In his latest book, Moral Origins, Boehm shows how these
hunter-gatherer groups handle the free-riding problem of
extreme bullies and super-selfish individuals with sanctions that
range from social pressure and criticism to shaming, ostracism,
ejection from the group, and even capital punishment.
o
These examples suggest that one’s culture may dictate which
god or religion to believe in, but the belief in a supernatural
agent who operates in the world as an indispensable part of a
social group is universal to all cultures because it is hardwired
in the brain.
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© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 14: The Psychology of Religious Belief
In their studies, behavioral geneticists look at such measures of religious belief
as rates of church attendance, regularity of prayer, and intensity of God beliefs.
Behavior Genetics and God
 Genetic research offers a second line of evidence about belief in the
divine. Behavior genetics is the science of teasing apart the relative
roles of heredity and environment in any given behavior.
114

In a 1979 study of 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of
fraternal twins reared apart, researchers in the Minnesota Twins
Project looked at five measures of religiosity. They found that the
correlations between identical twins were typically double those
for fraternal twins. Subsequent analysis led them to conclude that
genetic factors account for 41 to 47 percent—almost half—of the
observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.

Two much larger twin studies in 1986 support this conclusion. These
studies found similar percentages of genetic influence on religious
beliefs, comparing identical and fraternal twins on numerous
measures of beliefs and social attitudes, initially concluding that
approximately 40 to 50 percent of the variance in religious attitudes
was genetic.
o These twin researchers also documented substantial
correlations between the social attitudes of spouses, evidence
of the phenomenon known by evolutionary theorists as
assortative mating, or “like seeks like.”

o
Assortative mating means that children receive a double dose
of similar genes. When these researchers included a variable
for assortative mating in their behavioral genetics models,
they found that approximately 55 percent of the variance in
religious beliefs is genetic.
o
These behavior genetics studies indicate that people who grow
up in religious families and themselves later become religious
may do so in significant part because they have inherited a
disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively
with religious beliefs.
Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism,
Catholicism, Islam, or any other religion. Rather, belief in
supernatural agents and commitment to certain religious practices
appear to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring
the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for
authority, traditionalism).
o In other words, genes code for personality and temperament,
and by personality and temperament, we find ourselves
gravitating toward certain people and groups whom we enjoy
being around and whose beliefs we share.
o

If your parents are religious and they raised you in a religious
home, you are that much more likely to be religious yourself
and end up in the particular religion you happened to have been
raised in.
A controversial hypothesis put forth by the geneticist Dean Hamer
is that a gene called VMAT2 (vesicular monoamine transporter 2),
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Lecture 14: The Psychology of Religious Belief
which regulates the flow of serotonin, adrenaline, norepinephrine,
and dopamine in our brains, may make people feel good about
being spiritual or religious.
o VMAT2 is an integral membrane protein that acts to transport
monoamines from the fluid inside the neuron cell body to the
synaptic vesicles at the ends of the neuronal dendrites.
o
Hamer thinks that one variant of the VMAT2 gene that is
associated with increased self-transcendence (a personality
trait that encompasses self-forgetfulness, transpersonal
identification, and mysticism) leads to the production of more
of these transporters; thus, more neurotransmitter substances,
such as dopamine, are delivered into the synapses, thereby
boosting positive feelings.
o
Hamer’s studies have been strongly criticized by his fellow
scientists, and admittedly, identifying genes for specific
behaviors or beliefs can be problematic. Nevertheless, the fact
that dopamine is involved in belief supports the thesis that there
is a belief engine in the brain and one role of this engine is to
reward belief of all putative claims, including belief in God. In
other words, it feels good and is rewarding to believe in God.
Comparative World Religions and God
 A line of evidence that supports the cultural side of religious and god
beliefs comes from the study of comparative world religions. Over
the past 10,000 years of history, humans have created thousands of
different religions and gods. The propensity for humans to believe
in gods and adhere to religious faiths may have a strong genetic
component, but culture also strongly shapes how we think about
God and religion.

116
We can see the cultural element in religious beliefs in the similarities
among flood, virgin birth, and resurrection myths throughout
history.
o For example, predating the biblical Noahian flood story by
centuries is the Epic of Gilgamesh, written about 1800 B.C.
In fact, many cultures that developed along the banks of rivers
and seas have flood myths as part of their histories.

o
Virgin birth myths likewise spring up throughout time and
geography. Among those alleged to have been conceived in this
way were: Dionysus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Krishna, Horus,
Mercury, Romulus, and of course, Jesus. Consider the parallels
between Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, and Jesus of
Nazareth.
o
Resurrection myths are no less culturally constructed. Osiris
is the Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility and is one of
the oldest gods for whom records have survived. Osiris first
appears in the pyramid texts around 2400 B.C. By the time of
the New Kingdom in Egypt, both pharaohs and mortal men
believed that they could be resurrected by and with Osiris at
death if they practiced the correct religious rituals.
Of course, believers in God may respond that this scientific and
historical research does not prove or disprove God’s existence.
Perhaps God designed our brains in this way so that we may better
know him. We’ll look at this and other arguments for and against
God’s existence in the next lecture.
Important Terms
assortative mating: The idea that like marries like. People are attracted to
other people who are similar to them in looks and beliefs, and this leads to
offspring who are similar to their parents in both genetics and upbringing.
behavior genetics: The study of the relative roles of nature and nurture,
genetics and environment, biology and culture, primarily through the use of
twin studies, most notably, twins who were separated from birth and raised
in separate environments.
117
religion: A social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage
conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate
and reciprocate among members of a community.
VMAT2 gene: Associated with increased self-transcendence, this gene is
believed by some scientists to lead people to find pleasure in spiritual activities,
such as prayer, meditation, chanting, singing, and other religious rituals.
Suggested Reading
Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane.
Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion.
Hamer, The God Gene.
Shermer, How We Believe.
Stark and Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion.
Lecture 14: The Psychology of Religious Belief
Questions to Consider
1. Before listening to this lecture, how would you answer these two
questions: (1) Why do you believe in God? (2) Why do you think other
people believe in God?
2. Do you think that belief in God and participation in religious faiths is
hardwired into our brains, or do you think it is an artifact of culture and
history? Or both?
3. How do you make sense of the fact that there are so many different
religions in the world, most of which make truth claims that are in
conflict with other religions that also make truth claims? Is one of them
right and the others wrong, or is there no religious “truth”?
118
The God Question
Lecture 15
B
ecause we live in an age of science, many people are not content
to believe in God on faith alone, and over the centuries, this has
led philosophers to construct a series of arguments for God’s
existence based on reason and logic. Other philosophers have countered
these arguments, also using reason and logic, while scientists have largely
stayed out of the debate until just recently, when some believing scientists
have argued for God’s existence through science-based claims. This lecture
examines the best arguments for and against God’s existence to enable you
to answer the question for yourself.
Arguments for and against God’s Existence
 For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the Christian conception of
God. Believers in the industrial West usually mean God to be: all
powerful, all knowing, all good, one who created the universe and
everything in it out of nothing, one who is uncreated and eternal,
a noncorporeal spirit, and one who created, loves, and can grant
eternal life to humans.
Theist Argument
Atheist Counterargument
Prime mover and first cause
(put forth by the Catholic
theologian and philosopher
Saint Thomas Aquinas in
the 13th century): Everything
in the universe is in motion
and has a cause. Nothing
can be in motion unless it is
moved by another, and all
effects in the universe have
causes. But this motion and
cause-and-effect sequence
cannot be regressed forever;
thus, there had to be a prime
mover and first cause, a
causal agent who needed
no other cause to create the
universe and set it in motion.
If the universe is defined as everything that is,
ever was, or ever shall be, God must be within the
universe or is the universe. In either case, God
would himself need to be caused and moved; the
regress to a prime mover and first causer begs the
question of what moved and caused God.
Theists may respond that God does not need to
be moved and caused, but if that’s true, then not
everything in the universe needs to be moved
and caused. Perhaps the initial creation of the
universe was its own prime mover, and perhaps
the universe itself does not need a cause.
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Lecture 15: The God Question
Theist Argument
Atheist Counterargument
Miracles: The miracles of
the Bible, as well as those
of modern times, cannot be
accounted for by science or
natural law; therefore, they
must have as their cause a
higher power—God.
A miracle is just a name for something we cannot
explain. This is the “God of the gaps” argument
discussed in an earlier lecture.
Pascal’s wager (formulated
by the French philosopher
Blaise Pascal): If we wager
that God does not exist
and he does, then we
have everything to lose
and nothing to win. If we
wager that God does exist
and he does, then we have
everything to gain and
nothing to lose.
First, this is not actually a proof of God because
Pascal himself admitted that one still needs faith.
Morality: Humans are moral
beings and animals are
not. We got this moral drive
through the ultimate moral
being—God. Without God,
there would be no objective
standard for morality and,
thus, no reason to be moral.
Murder, for example, is wrong
because God commanded
it so, but without God, some
cultures might hold murder
to be wrong while others do
not, reducing morality to pure
anything-goes relativism.
This argument entails two questions: (1) What is
the source of our morality, and (2) can there be
objective right and wrong without God?

120
Second, believing in God and going through the
motions of attending church, praying, taking the
sacraments, and so forth is not a case of “nothing
to lose.” At the very least, one loses the time and
effort required for these activities when one could
be doing something else.
Finally, Pascal applied his wager to the JudeoChristian God, but what if there were some other
god or a higher intelligence even more powerful
than God, and you were punished for wagering on
the wrong god and religion?
For the first question, there is strong scientific
evidence that humans evolved morality and
a sense of right and wrong because we are a
social species and need to get along in groups.
But if God is the author of the laws of nature and
evolution entails some of those laws in action,
then one could argue that God used evolution to
create the moral sense in humans.
As for the second question, moral realists and
moral consequentialists both argue that moral
principles exist whether or not there is a God.
For example, truth telling is a moral principle
because honesty is vital for human relationships.
This would be true whether or not God exists.
The same is true of murder, adultery, and other
moral issues.
Using this definition, the following table outlines the best
arguments for this God’s existence put forth by theists and the
counterarguments given by atheists.
Theist Argument
Design/teleology (first
proffered by Aquinas but
refined by later thinkers):
Aquinas wrote, “natural
bodies act for an end,”
yet because they lack
knowledge, they must have
been designed. “Therefore
some intelligent being exists
by whom all natural things
are ordered to their end;
and this being we call God.”
Modern design arguments
involve the intricacies of
design in nature, such as
symbiotic relationships
between organisms or the
apparent “anthropic” design
of the cosmos—that is, that it
is precisely suited for life.
Atheist Counterargument
Nature is not as beautifully designed or as
“perfect” as it might seem. Most of the universe,
for example, is completely inhospitable to life.
Further, nature is filled with oddities that do not
seem intelligently designed and, in fact, point to
bottom-up, unguided evolution.
But this counterargument is incomplete; theists
are actually arguing that the laws of nature are
such that no life forms of any kind could exist if
these laws were different in any manner. In fact,
matter itself couldn’t exist without the laws of
nature being finely tuned.
The Anthropic Principle
 There are three types of anthropic principles:
o Weak: the belief that the universe and the laws of nature
must be configured as they are or else we wouldn’t be here to
observe them.

o
Strong: the belief that the universe and the laws of nature must
be configured as they are because there is no other way they
could be structured.
o
Final or participatory: the belief that the universe and the laws
of nature must be configured as they are because humans are
inevitable, and once we exist, we participate in the universe to
preserve our existence.
But scientists have come up with numerous ideas to explain the
origin of the universe. These ideas include an as-yet-unknown
grand unified theory that connects quantum mechanics to general
relativity, various theories of multiverses, and others.
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
Many believers think that scientists devise these theories to write
God out of the equation, but that’s not true. Whether they believe
in God or not, when scientists are practicing science, they are
duty-bound, so to speak, to look only for natural explanations for
natural phenomena.

The supernatural is not the domain of science; thus, what all these
arguments and counterarguments show us is that no one has yet
come up with proof of God’s existence or nonexistence.
Shermer’s Last Law and the Scientific Search for God
 Most theists believe that God created the universe and everything in
it, including stars, planets, and life. But how could we distinguish
an omnipotent and omniscient God or intelligent designer from
an extremely powerful extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)? This
question leads us to Shermer’s last law: Any sufficiently advanced
ETI is indistinguishable from God. This law arises from an
integration of evolutionary theory and the SETI program and can
be derived from the observations and deductions shown in the
following illustration.
Lecture 15: The God Question
Observation 1: Biological
evolution is Darwinian and
requires generations of differential
reproductive success, whereas
technological evolution is cultural
and can be implemented within a
single generation.
Observation 2: The cosmos is
very big and space is very empty;
thus, the probability of making
contact with an ETI is remote.
122
Deduction 1: The probability of
making contact with an ETI that
is only slightly more advanced
than us is virtually nil because the
ETI, too, would have just recently
discovered the physics behind
radio transmissions and space
flight. Any ETIs we encounter
will either be far behind us or far
ahead of us.
Observation 3: Moore’s law of
computer power doubling every
18 months continues unabated.
Computer scientists calculate
that as early as 2030, we may
encounter the singularity—the
point at which total computational
power will appear to be nearly
infinite and, thus, relatively
speaking, indistinguishable from
omniscience.
Deduction 2: Extrapolating out
hundreds of thousands or millions
of years, we arrive at a realistic
estimate of how far advanced an
ETI will be. Consider something
as relatively simple as DNA. We
can already engineer genes after
only 50 years of genetic science.
An ETI that is 50,000 years
ahead of us would surely be able
to construct entire genomes,
cells, multicellular life, and
complex ecosystems.
Deduction 3: For an ETI that is
1 million years more advanced
than we are, engineering the
creation of planets and stars
may be possible. If universes
are created out of collapsing
black holes—which some
cosmologists think is probable—it
is conceivable that an advanced
ETI could create a universe by
triggering the collapse of a star
into a black hole.

What would we call an intelligent being capable of engineering
life, planets, stars, and even universes? If we knew the underlying
science and technology used to do the engineering, we would call
it an extraterrestrial intelligence; if we did not know the underlying
science and technology, we would call it God.

Thus, we arrive at the conclusion: The only God that science could
discover would be a natural being, an entity that exists in space and
time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God
who exists outside of space and time is not knowable to science
because he is not part of the natural world.
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Lecture 15: The God Question
Theists, Atheists, and Agnostics
 Let’s end this lecture by noting the problematic nature of the labels
we use to describe people who believe in God (theists), do not
believe in God (atheists), or think it is not possible to know one
way or the other (agnostics).

The word “agnosticism” was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry
Huxley, who wrote: “When I reached intellectual maturity and
began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a
pantheist… I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less
ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had
attained a certain ‘gnosis,’…; while I was quite sure I had not, and
had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.”

Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world,
we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God; by default, then,
we must make a choice, if not intellectually, at least behaviorally.

In other words, “agnosticism” is an intellectual position, a
statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our
ability to know it with certainty, whereas “theism” and “atheism”
are behavioral positions that describe what assumptions we make
about the world in which we behave.

For some of us, the label “skeptic” may be preferable to “atheist.”
When most people use the word “atheist,” they are thinking of
strong atheism, which asserts that God does not exist; that is not
a tenable position (a negative cannot be proved). Weak atheism
simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all
practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history.
Important Terms
agnosticism: The belief that God is unknown or unknowable through reason
or science.
124
anthropic principle: An argument often used as a scientific proof of God
that the universe and the laws of nature are designed in such a way as to give
rise to humans. There are three types of anthropic principles: (1) weak: the
belief that the universe and the laws of nature must be configured as they
are or else we wouldn’t be here to observe them; (2) strong: the belief that
the universe and the laws of nature must be configured as they are because
there is no other way they could be structured; (3) final or participatory: the
belief that the universe and the laws of nature must be configured as they
are because humans are inevitable, and once we exist, we participate in the
universe to preserve our existence.
atheism: Disbelief in, denial of, or lack of belief in the existence of God or
a deity or deities.
first cause argument: A proof of God proposed by the Catholic theologian
Saint Thomas Aquinas; argues that all effects in the universe have causes,
including the universe itself, and therefore, there had to be a first cause,
or God.
God: An all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and all-good
(omnibenevolent) being who created the universe and everything in it out of
nothing; is uncreated and eternal; and is a noncorporeal spirit who created,
loves, and can grant eternal life to humans.
Pascal’s wager: The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal
argued if we wager that God does not exist and he does, then we have
everything to lose and nothing to win. If we wager that God does exist and
he does, then we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
prime mover argument: A proof of God proposed by the Catholic
theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas; argues that because everything in the
universe is in motion and nothing can be in motion unless it is moved by
another, there must necessarily be a first mover, or God.
theism: Belief in God or a deity or deities.
125
Suggested Reading
Aquinas, Summa Theologica.
Craig, On Guard.
Davies, The Mind of God.
Dawkins, The God Delusion.
Harris, The End of Faith.
Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design.
Lennox, Gunning for God.
Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief.
Smith, Atheism.
Stenger, Has Science Found God?
Ward, God, Chance and Necessity.
Questions to Consider
1. What do you think are the best arguments for God’s existence?
2. What do you think are the best arguments for God’s nonexistence?
Lecture 15: The God Question
3. Did this lecture change your mind one way or the other?
4. Do you think the God question is answerable by science, or is it a matter
of faith?
126
Without God, Does Anything Go?
Lecture 16
I
n the last two lectures, we have seen how a skeptic views the topic
of the existence of God, and we touched on one of the most common
arguments raised by believers: If there is no God, then what is the origin
and basis of morality? Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?
Indeed, without God, is morality reduced to anything-goes relativism? In
this lecture, we’ll see how a skeptic thinks about the origins and foundation
of morality and the moral sense. We’ll also delve into the reality of moral
principles: If these principles are real, then they can be discovered and
studied by scientists in the same way as any natural phenomenon.
The Reality of Moral Principles
 The argument that moral principles are real and a natural part of
the world dates back to Plato. In his dialogue Euthyphro, the Greek
philosopher presented what has come to be known as Euthyphro’s
dilemma, in which Socrates asks a young man named Euthyphro
the following question: “The point which I should first wish to
understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods
because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”

Socrates is trying to show Euthyphro that there exists a dilemma
over whether God embraces moral principles naturally occurring
and external to him because they are sound (“holy”) or whether
these moral principles are sound because he created them. It cannot
be both.

We all know that adultery is wrong. Would it still be wrong even if
it were not listed in the Ten Commandments? Of course.
o By nature, humans are social and we pair bond. Anthropologists
think that we pair bond because the rearing of children is so
time and labor intensive that it takes two people.
127
Lecture 16: Without God, Does Anything Go?
128
o
As well, evolutionary psychologists have worked out the
science behind the moral emotion of jealousy, which evolved
as a motivation of behavior called mate guarding.
o
Because sometimes people do cheat on their partners, it would
be costly for a man to invest his resources in rearing another
man’s child, and it would be damaging to a woman to have
family resources that were allocated for raising her child be split
with some other woman and her child by an unfaithful partner.

The fact that we have a deep moral sense of right and wrong means
that Euthyphro’s dilemma is resolved: Moral principles exist, which
means they are real and can be studied by scientists and analyzed
from a skeptical perspective.

This argument, known as natural law theory, was set forth by the
13th-century Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas. He argued that
God supports moral principles that occur naturally, instills them
in us, and we then discover them through rational analysis, prayer,
and our God-given mental faculty for moral reasoning. By the
18th century, a number of Enlightenment philosophers challenged
the premise of Euthyphro’s dilemma—most notably, the atheist
Scottish philosopher David Hume—by taking God out of the moral
equation altogether.

Thomas Jefferson used natural law reasoning in one of the founding
statements of the United States of America: “We hold these Truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
o This concept that rights and morals exist separate from
individual people and cultures and that God is not needed to
objectify them is foreign to most people, which is why the
American experiment has taken more than two centuries to
catch on elsewhere in the world.
o
Most people feel that without God, rights and morals are
relative and, thus, meaningless. Without the transcendence
offered by a God, believers argue, moral acts and principles
can have no firm foundation on which to stand.
o
But we can make the case that morality exists outside the
human mind, in the sense of being not just a trait of individual
people but a human trait or human universal. Moral sentiments
and behaviors are hardwired into our brains just as much as
other features of human cognition and emotion are because
they are both evolutionarily adaptive and culturally reinforced.
The Evidence of Evolved Morality
 Our moral sentiments—the moral emotions contained within our
mental armory—seem to have evolved out of pre-moral feelings
of our hominid, primate, and mammalian ancestors, the remnants
of which can be found in modern apes, monkeys, and other bigbrained mammals. These sentiments are considered to be pre-moral
because morality involves right and wrong thoughts and behaviors
in the context of a social group. It does not appear that other animals
can consciously assess the rightness or wrongness of thoughts or
actions in themselves or fellow members of their species.

Anyone who has had a dog as a pet recognizes that dogs quickly
learn the difference between right and wrong, feel some sense of
shame or guilt when scolded for bad behavior, and express joy and
pride when being praised for good behavior. That sense of shame or
pride is what we mean by “moral sentiments”; because dogs don’t
have symbolic language or, presumably, cognition, these are premoral sentiments.

Evidence of pre-moral sentiments among wild animals abounds.
Psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal has documented
hundreds of examples of pre-moral sentiments among apes and
monkeys. Other scientists have recorded pre-moral sentiments in
vampire bats, dolphins, whales, and elephants.
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© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 16: Without God, Does Anything Go?
Dolphins have been seen to push sick or wounded members of a pod to the
surface so that they may catch their breath, evidence of pre-moral sentiments.

In fact, the following characteristics appear to be shared by
humans and other mammals, especially apes, monkeys, dolphins,
and whales: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid,
sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and
reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peace-making, deception
and deception detection, community concern and caring about what
others think, and awareness of and response to the social rules of
the group.

Species differ in the degree to which they express these sentiments,
and with our exceptionally large brains, we clearly express most of
them in greater degrees than other species. Nevertheless, the fact
that such pre-moral sentiments exist in our nearest evolutionary
cousins is a strong indication of their evolutionary origins.
Our Moral Psychology
 This moral sense or sentiment appears to be the basis of our moral
psychology. For example, positive emotions, such as righteousness
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and pride, are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing
“good.” These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that
were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the
group. Negative emotions, such as guilt and shame, are experienced
as the psychological feeling of doing “bad.” These moral emotions
probably evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being
bad either for the individual or for the group.

This is the psychology of morality—the feeling of being moral or
immoral. These moral emotions represent something deeper than
specific feelings about specific behaviors. Although cultures may
differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the general
moral emotion of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X is an
evolved emotion that is universal to all humans.

Consider some of the more basic emotions that represent something
deeper than specific feelings. When we need to eat, we do not compute
caloric input/output ratios; we simply feel hungry. That feeling is an
evolved hunger sentiment that triggers eating behavior. When we
need to procreate to pass on our genes into the next generation, we
do not calculate the genetic potential of a sexual partner; we feel
aroused and seek out a partner we find attractive. The sexual urge is
an evolved sexual sentiment that triggers sexual behavior.

In an evolutionary theory of morality, asking, “If there is no God, why
should we be moral?” is like asking, “Why should we be hungry?” or
“Why should we want to have sex?” The answer is that it is as much
a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry or lustful.

Specific behaviors in a culture may be considered right or wrong,
and these vary over cultures and history. But the sense of being
right or wrong in the emotions of righteousness and pride, guilt
and shame is a human universal that appears to have had an
evolutionary origin. The incest taboo—in place in all cultures
around the world—serves as an example of the depth of our moral
psychology; it is a strong moral emotion that evolved to maintain
the genetic health of the species.
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Lecture 16: Without God, Does Anything Go?
Our Moral Political Psychology
132

Our moral psychology applies not just to our immediate loved ones
and friends; it is also involved in group living with nonrelatives and
strangers and even goes a long way toward explaining our political
psychology. That is, politics is an extension of group living that
ensures we get along relatively well with one another, and it turns
out that our moral emotions are involved in politics, as well.

Professor Jonathan Haidt, who studies moral political psychology,
proposes that the foundations of our sense of right and wrong
rest within “five innate and universally available psychological
systems” that arose as a function of group living. He describes them
as follows:
o Harm/care: Related to our long evolution as mammals with
attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the
pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness,
gentleness, and nurturance.
o
Fairness/reciprocity: Related to the evolutionary process of
reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice,
rights, and autonomy.
o
In-group loyalty: Related to our long history as tribal creatures
able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies
virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.
o
Authority/respect: Shaped by our long primate history of
hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies
virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to
legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
o
Purity/sanctity: Shaped by the psychology of disgust and
contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions
of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, nobler way. It
underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple that can
be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.

Over the years, Haidt and his colleague Jesse Graham have
surveyed the moral opinions of more than 110,000 people from
more than a dozen countries and regions around the world and have
found this consistent difference: Liberals are high on harm/care and
fairness/reciprocity but low on in-group loyalty, authority/respect,
and purity/sanctity. Conservatives are roughly equal on all five
dimensions, although they place slightly less emphasis on the first
two and slightly more on the last three.

Instead of viewing the left and the right as either right or wrong,
a more reflective approach is to recognize that liberals and
conservatives emphasize different moral values and tend to sort
themselves into these two clusters.

We appear to have evolved morals as part of our psychological
equipment to help us lead better social lives with our fellow group
members; thus, whether God exists or not doesn’t matter because
there really are absolute right and wrong moral principles that are
encoded in our genes and culturally reinforced through our groups,
societies, and even political parties.
Important Terms
Euthyphro’s dilemma: A problem set forth in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro:
Does God embrace moral principles naturally occurring and external to
him because they are sound, or are these moral principles sound because he
created them?
pre-moral sentiments: Feelings or emotions related to morality, such as
shame or pride, evidenced by domesticated or wild animals.
Suggested Reading
Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation.
Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest.
Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.
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De Waal, Good Natured.
———, Chimpanzee Politics.
Edwards, “Socrates.”
Haidt, The Divided Mind.
———, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.”
Moss, Elephant Memories.
Ridley, The Origins of Virtue.
Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil.
Trivers, “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism.”
Wilkinson, “Reciprocal Food Sharing in the Vampire Bat.”
Questions to Consider
1. If you found out today that there is no God, how would your morals
Lecture 16: Without God, Does Anything Go?
change? Would you suddenly become immoral and dishonest? Would
you lie, cheat, and steal? Or would you be moral because that is the right
thing to do?
2. What is Euthyphro’s dilemma, and how can it be resolved?
3. In what way do some animals, such as primates, marine mammals, and
elephants, display pre-moral behaviors?
4. How does our moral psychology translate into a political psychology?
5. What are the five moral dimensions of political psychology, and how
do liberals and conservatives differ on them? (Take the morality survey
yourself at www.yourmorals.org.)
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Life, Death, and the Afterlife
Lecture 17
I
s there life after death? This is one of life’s most compelling questions.
All cultures throughout history and around the world have had some
form of an afterlife built into their beliefs and religions, and most people
believe that when we die, this is not the end of life. This lecture reviews four
of the major forms of afterlife belief, along with the phenomenon of neardeath experience, which provides the best scientific evidence available to us
for the possibility of life surviving death. We’ll learn why that evidence does
not convince most scientists and what humanity’s quest for immortality tells
us about how the mind works.
Can We Imagine Death?
 What picture comes to mind when you attempt to imagine your
own death: your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and
friends or perhaps complete darkness and void? Whatever it is you
imagine, you are still conscious and observing the scene. But in
reality, you can no more envision what it is like to be dead than you
can visualize yourself before you were born.

In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It
Drives Civilization, the British philosopher Stephen Cave calls this
the mortality paradox: “Death presents itself as both inevitable and
impossible,” he suggests. We see it all around us, yet “it involves
the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what
it is like to not be conscious.”

The attempt to resolve the paradox has led to four major immortality
narratives, as outlined by Cave:
o Staying-alive narrative: “like all living systems, we strive to
avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this
world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.”
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
o
Resurrection narrative: “the belief that, although we must
physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with
the bodies we knew in life.”
o
Legacy narrative: “more indirect ways of extending ourselves
into the future,” such as glory, reputation, historical impact,
or children.
o
Soul narrative: the “dream of surviving as some kind of
spiritual entity.”
Cave concluded: “Unfortunately, none of these narratives seems
capable of delivering us everlasting life.”
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Lecture 17: Life, Death, and the Afterlife
Near-Death Experience
 Near-death experiences provide us with the best scientific
evidence available for the possibility of life surviving death, and we
now know a great deal about them.
o For example, researchers working for the U.S. military have
discovered that pilots exposed to G-force acceleration can
Military pilots may lose consciousness and undergo the sensations associated
with near-death experiences when exposed to G-force acceleration.
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lose consciousness during aerial combat maneuvering and
experience many of the sensations associated with near-death
experiences: a floating or flying feeling, commonly called
an out-of-body experience (OBE); the sensation of passing
through a tunnel or hallway, sometimes with a bright light at
the end of it; and the sight of loved ones who have already
passed away or a godlike image or divine figure.
o

In a 2002 study published in Nature, the Swiss neuroscientist
Olaf Blanke and his colleagues reported that they could produce
OBEs through electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in
the temporal lobe of a 43-year-old woman suffering from severe
epileptic seizures.
o Blanke’s team concluded: “These observations indicate that
OBEs and complex somatosensory illusions can be artificially
induced by electrical stimulation of the cortex. The association
of these phenomena and their anatomical selectivity suggest
that they have a common origin in body-related processing,
an idea that is supported by the restriction of these visual
experiences to the patient’s own body.”
o

These researchers have been able to induce OBEs and the
tunnel sensation in subjects more than 1,000 times in 16 years
of study, leaving no doubt as to the cause: apoxia, or oxygen
deprivation to the cortex.
As we said in an earlier lecture, the primary function of the
brain is to run the body; thus, a displaced body schema may
help explain not only the sensed-presence effect but also OBEs.
In a related study reported in the book Why God Won’t Go Away,
neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and his colleague Eugene D’Aquili
found that when Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns
pray, brain scans made during these activities indicate strikingly
low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region of
the brain the authors have dubbed the orientation association
area (OAA).
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Lecture 17: Life, Death, and the Afterlife
o
The OAA’s job is to orient the body in physical space, and people
with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their
way through a space, sometimes even bumping into objects.
Even though an individual can see an obtrusive object, the brain
does not process it as something separate from the body.
o
When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly, there is
a sharp distinction between self and non-self. But when the
OAA is in sleep mode—as in deep meditation and prayer—
that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines
between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of
body. Perhaps this is what happens to monks who experience
a sense of oneness with the universe or with nuns who feel the
presence of God.
o
This hypothesis was further supported in a 2010 discovery
that damage to the posterior superior parietal lobe through
tumorous legions can cause patients to suddenly experience
feelings of spiritual transcendence.
Lack of Near-Death Experience
 If the near-death experience is universal and a sign that something
survives the body after death, why is it that only about 10 to 15
percent of people who come close to death have such experiences?
What does the lack of near-death experience mean?

138
Dr. Mark Crislip, an emergency room doctor in Portland, Oregon,
reviewed the original EEG readings of a number of patients
claimed by scientists as being flat-lined or “dead” and discovered
that this was not at all the case: “What they showed was slowing,
attenuation, and other changes, but only a minority of patients had
a flat line…. The curious thing was that even a little blood flow in
some patients was enough to keep EEG’s normal.”
o Having your heart stop for 2 to 10 minutes and being promptly
resuscitated doesn’t make you “clinically dead”; it means only
that your heart isn’t beating and you may not be conscious.
Under these circumstances, near-death experiences seem
eminently possible and, in fact, not even that surprising.
o

Again, given that our normal experience is of stimuli coming
into the brain from the outside, when a part of the brain
abnormally generates hallucinations, another part of the brain—
quite possibly the left-hemisphere interpreter described by
neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga—interprets them as external
events. Hence, the abnormal is interpreted as supernormal.
A final piece of evidence comes from research by neuroscientists
who have now documented that in the brains of people undergoing
hallucinations, the same sensory perceptual systems become active
as those engaged in the sensation of actual physical stimulation. As
the great neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks notes in his many remarkable
books, all such experiences reside in the brain, not in the world.
Monism versus Dualism Revisited
 In an earlier lecture, we discussed dualism—the belief that there
are two substances in the universe (material and immaterial, body
and soul, brain and mind)—and monism—the belief that there is
just one substance in the universe (material, body, brain). Most
religions are dualistic, believing that the soul is a conscious ethereal
substance, the unique essence of a living being that survives its
incarnation in flesh.

A religious definition of “soul” might read: the essence that breathes
life into flesh, animates us, and gives us our vital spirit. In contrast,
a skeptical or scientific definition might read: The soul is the unique
pattern of information that represents a person.
o Our bodies are made of proteins, coded by DNA that directs
the pattern of information that makes up all the parts of the
body; with the disintegration of DNA, our protein patterns are
lost forever.
o
Our memories and personalities are stored in the patterns of
neurons firing in our brains and the synaptic connections
139
between them; when those neurons die and those synaptic
connections are broken, it spells the death of our memories
and personalities.
o
Lecture 17: Life, Death, and the Afterlife

140
Until a technology is developed to download our patterns into
a more durable medium than the electric meat of our carbonbased protein, the scientific evidence tells us that when we die,
our pattern of information—our soul—dies with us.
Nevertheless, polls show that the vast majority of people believe in
an afterlife. We can describe at least six explanations for this belief:
o Belief in the afterlife is a form of agenticity. In our tendency
to infuse the patterns we find in life with meaning, agency,
and intention, the concept of life after death is an extension
of ourselves as intentional agents continuing indefinitely into
the future.
o
Belief in the afterlife is a type of dualism. Because we are
natural-born dualists who intuitively believe that our minds are
separate from our brains and bodies, the afterlife is the logical
step in projecting our own mind-agency into the future without
our bodies.
o
Belief in the afterlife is an extension of the body schema. Our
brains construct a body image out of input from every nook
and cranny of our bodies; when woven together, this image
forms a seamless tapestry of a single individual called the self.
When coupled to our capacity for agenticity and dualism, we
can project that essence into the future, even without a body.
o
Belief in the afterlife is mediated by our left-hemisphere
interpreter, which integrates input from all the senses into a
meaningful narrative arc that makes sense of both senseful and
senseless data.
o
Belief in the afterlife is an extension of our normal ability to
imagine ourselves somewhere else both in space and time,
including time immemorial.
o
Belief in the afterlife appears to preserve the hope of some
purpose and sense to what otherwise appears to be a pointless
existence.
Hoping and Knowing
 Our belief systems are structured such that we will almost
always find a way to support what we want to believe. Thus, the
overwhelming desire to believe in something otherworldly means
that we should be especially vigilant in our skepticism of claims
made in this arena.

Is scientific monism in conflict with religious dualism? Yes, it
is. Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no
scientific evidence that it does.

Do science and skepticism extirpate all meaning in life? No, they
seem to do quite the opposite. If our present lives are all we have,
then our families, our friends, our communities, how we conduct
ourselves, indeed, every moment of every day counts—not as props
in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow but as valued
essences in the here and now.
Important Terms
apoxia: Oxygen deprivation to the cortex that often results in out-of-body
and near-death experiences.
near-death experience: Characterized by one of three commonly reported
elements: (1) a floating sensation in which the subject looks down and sees
his or her own body; (2) the feeling of passing through a tunnel or spiral
chamber toward a bright light that represents transcendence to “the other
side”; (3) emergence on the other side and the sight of loved ones who have
already passed away or a godlike figure.
141
out-of-body experience (OBE): The sensation of floating out of one’s
body, usually upward such that the view of the body is from above with the
body below.
soul: A religious definition of this term might read as follows: a conscious
ethereal substance that is the unique essence of a living being that survives
its incarnation in flesh. A scientific definition might read: the unique
pattern of information that represents a person, stored in our DNA and
neural networks.
Suggested Reading
Augustine, “Near-Death Experiences with Hallucinatory Features.”
Beyerstein, “Altered States of Consciousness.”
Blackmore, Dying to Live.
Blanke et al., “Neuropsychology: Stimulating Illusory Own-Body Perceptions.”
Brugger and Mohr, “Out of the Body, But Not Out of the Mind.”
Tipler, The Physics of Immortality.
Lecture 17: Life, Death, and the Afterlife
Whinnery, “Psychophysiologic Correlates of Unconsciousness and NearDeath Experiences.”
Questions to Consider
1. What is the soul?
2. What is dualism, and how does it differ from monism?
3. What is the likeliest explanation for out-of-body and near-death
experiences?
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Your Skeptical Toolkit
Lecture 18
I
n this course, we have covered a broad range of topics related to
science and pseudoscience and learned many new skills for thinking
like scientists in our personal and professional lives. For each particular
claim, we have reviewed how scientists think about it and where our own
thinking often goes wrong. This final lecture outlines some general principles
that we can apply to what the great astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan called
“the fine art of baloney detection.” The ideas, principles, and aphorisms in
this lecture constitute what we’ll call a skeptics’ toolkit.
Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Carl Sagan
 The story of the magician Harry Houdini and the writer Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle reminds us that anyone—no matter how smart,
educated, or capable of logical reasoning—can be fooled. It also
reminds us of two principles we learned earlier in the course: (1)
Before you say that something is out of this world, first make
sure that it is not in this world, and (2) the fact that something
is unexplained doesn’t mean that it’s paranormal, supernatural,
extraterrestrial, or conspiratorial.

We need a practical way of determining what is and is not true,
and the first items we can put in our toolkit for this purpose are
reminders from Carl Sagan, highlighted in his book The DemonHaunted World.
o Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable
proponents of all points of view.
o
Arguments from authority carry little weight. “Authorities”
have made mistakes in the past and will do so again in the
future. Perhaps a better way to state this principle is that in
science, there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
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Lecture 18: Your Skeptical Toolkit

144
o
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to
be explained, think of all the different ways in which it
could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might
systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What
survives—the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian
selection among multiple hypotheses—has a much better
chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run
with the first idea that caught your fancy.
o
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because
it’s yours. A hypothesis is only a way station in the pursuit
of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare
it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for
rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
o
Reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments is
key. We will not learn much from mere contemplation. It is
tempting to be content with the first candidate explanation we
can think of, but what happens if we come up with several?
How do we decide among them? We rely on experiment.
Another set of tools in our skeptics’ toolkit was also inspired by
Carl Sagan’s work. It consists of a series of questions to ask when
encountering any claim:
o Does the source of a questionable claim often make other,
similarly questionable claims? Pseudoscientists have a habit
of going well beyond the facts; thus, when individuals make
numerous extraordinary claims, they may be more than just
iconoclasts. They may simply be cranks who are always wrong.
o
Have the claims been verified by another source? Typically,
pseudoscientists make statements that are unverified or verified
by a source within their own belief circle. We must ask: Who is
checking the claims, and who is checking the checkers?
o
Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has
only confirmatory evidence been sought? The goal here is to
counter the confirmation bias that we’ve discussed throughout
this course—the tendency to seek confirming evidence and
reject or ignore disconfirming evidence. The danger of this
bias is the reason that verification and replication are critical
in science.
o
Has the claimant provided an alternative to the accepted
explanation for the observed phenomena or merely denied the
existing explanation? This question speaks to a classic debate
strategy: Criticize your opponent, and to avoid criticism, never
affirm what you believe. But this stratagem is unacceptable
in science. Big bang skeptics, for example, ignore the
convergence of evidence of this cosmological model, focus on
the few flaws in the accepted model, and have yet to offer a
viable cosmological alternative that carriers a preponderance
of evidence in favor of it.
o
Do the claimants’ personal beliefs and biases drive the
conclusions or vice versa? All scientists hold social, political,
and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their
interpretations of the data, but how do those biases and beliefs
affect their research? At some point, usually during the peerreview system, such biases and beliefs are rooted out.
Logic-Tight Compartments
 Even with all these precautions in place, any of us may end up
believing weird things, even while being rational and scientific in
other areas of our lives. The reason for this has to do with what
we might call logic-tight compartments—modules in the brain
analogous to watertight compartments in a ship.

The existence of compartmentalized brain functions, acting in either
concert or conflict, has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology
since the 1990s. According to University of Pennsylvania
evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, the brain evolved as
a modular, multitasking, problem-solving organ—a Swiss army
knife of practical tools. There is no unified “self” that generates
145
internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs. Instead, we
are a collection of distinct but interacting modules that are often at
odds with one another.

Compartmentalization is also at work when new scientific theories
conflict with older and more naïve beliefs. In a 2012 paper in the
journal Cognition, Occidental College psychologists Andrew
Shtulman and Joshua Valcarcel found that subjects more quickly
verified the validity of scientific statements when those statements
agreed with their prior naïve beliefs. Contradictory scientific
statements were processed more slowly and less accurately,
suggesting that “naïve theories survive the acquisition of a mutually
incompatible scientific theory, coexisting with that theory for many
years to follow.”
Lecture 18: Your Skeptical Toolkit
Skeptical Mottos
 Also in the skeptics’ toolkit is an aphorism often attributed to Carl
Sagan but actually said by others before him: Extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence.

A related observation comes from the journalist Christopher
Hitchens, who wrote, “What can be asserted without evidence can
also be dismissed without evidence.” This is a variation on David
Hume’s “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

As we’ve learned, another valuable motto for skeptics is simply: “I
don’t know.” We don’t have to have an explanation for everything.
Wronger Than Wrong
 Still another arrow in our skeptical quiver comes from the great
science writer Isaac Asimov in a poignant essay called “The
Relativity of Wrong”: “When people thought the Earth was flat,
they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical,
they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is
spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your
view is wronger than both of them put together.”
146

The Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins put this
another way in a 1996 New Yorker article: “When two opposite
points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not
necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one
side to be simply wrong.”

As we saw in the lecture on evolution and creationism, evidence
strongly indicates that one side (creationism) is simply wrong, no
matter how much we would all like to get along and find compromise.
Science and Democracy
 Democracy is a form of science in the sense that democratic elections
are like scientific experiments: Every couple of years, we carefully
alter the variables with an election and observe the results. If we want
different results, we change the variables with another election.

This idea is well argued by the science writer Timothy Ferris in his
2010 book The Science of Liberty. Ferris argues that the scientific
values of reason, empiricism, and anti-authoritarianism are not the
products of liberal democracy but the producers of it: “The founders
often spoke of the new nation as an ‘experiment.’ Procedurally,
it involved deliberations about how to facilitate both liberty and
order, matters about which the individual states experimented
considerably during the eleven years between the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution.”

In fact, many of the founding fathers of the United States were
scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering,
hypothesis testing, and theory formation to their nation building.
Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them
naturally to form a social system wherein doubt and disputation
were the centerpieces of a functional polity.

Ferris sees political claims, such as the idea of equality under the
law, as “methods, not ideologies.” He goes on to explain: “Both
[liberalism and science] incorporate feedback loops through which
actions (e.g., laws) can be evaluated to see whether they continue
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© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
Einstein observed, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science,
measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most
precious thing we have.”
to meet with general approval. Neither science nor liberalism
makes any doctrinaire claims beyond the efficacy of its respective
methods—that is, that science obtains knowledge and that liberalism
produces social orders generally acceptable to free peoples.”
Lecture 18: Your Skeptical Toolkit

The myth of the scientific method as a series of neat and tidy steps
from hypothesis and prediction to experiment and conclusion is
busted once you go into a lab and observe the more haphazard and
messy realities of researchers feeling their way toward discovery.
The same is true of liberal democracies, which almost never work
out as planned but somehow progress ever closer to finding the
right balance between individual liberty and social order.
Science and Spirituality
 There are many ways to be spiritual, and science, in its aweinspiring account of who we are and where we came from, is
among them.
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
Science tells us that we are but one among hundreds of millions
of species that evolved over the course of 3.5 billion years on one
tiny planet among many planets orbiting an ordinary star, itself
one of possibly billions of solar systems in an ordinary galaxy that
contains hundreds of billions of stars, itself located in a cluster of
galaxies not so different from millions of other galaxy clusters,
themselves whirling away from one another in an accelerating,
expanding cosmic-bubble universe that very possibly is only one
among a near infinite number of bubble universes.

If spirituality means a sense of awe and wonder and humility in the
face of the creation, what could be more awesome and wonderous
and humbling than the deep space discovered by astronomers
and cosmologists and the deep time discovered by biologists and
geologists? Science matters because it is the preeminent story of
our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and
where we are going.
Important Term
logic-tight compartments: Modules in the brain analogous to watertight
compartments in a ship that allow us to hold conflicting beliefs simultaneously.
Suggested Reading
Cialdini, Influence.
Damasio, Descartes’ Error.
Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So.
Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars.
Kevles, The Baltimore Case.
Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation.
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Paul and Paul, Critical Thinking.
Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts.
Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.
Shermer, The Borderlands of Science.
Tavris and Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).
Questions to Consider
1. What is in the skeptics’ toolkit, and how can it be used to help us detect
baloney when we encounter it?
Lecture 18: Your Skeptical Toolkit
2. In what ways do you find a sense of spirituality in science?
150
Glossary
action potential: When the cell wall of a neuron becomes permeable to
sodium, with a corresponding shift in voltage from negative to positive,
an electrical signal travels down the axon to the dendrites at the end of the
neuronal cell, where the signal may then be passed on to other neurons;
colloquially, the cell “fired.”
ad hominem: Literally, “to the man”; this fallacy of thinking places the focus
of inquiry on the person making the claim instead of on the claim itself. An
“ad hominem attack” is an attack on the person instead of the argument.
ad ignorantiam: An appeal to ignorance or the belief that if someone cannot
disprove a claim, then it must be true.
agenticity: The tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.
agnosticism: The belief that God is unknown or unknowable through reason
or science.
alternative history: Claims about the past that are usually at odds with what
mainstream professional historians have come to conclude about the past.
anchoring effect: The tendency to rely too heavily on a past reference or on
one piece of information when making decisions.
anthropic principle: An argument often used as a scientific proof of God
that the universe and the laws of nature are designed in such a way as to give
rise to humans. There are three types of anthropic principles: (1) weak: the
belief that the universe and the laws of nature must be configured as they
are or else we wouldn’t be here to observe them; (2) strong: the belief that
the universe and the laws of nature must be configured as they are because
there is no other way they could be structured; (3) final or participatory: the
belief that the universe and the laws of nature must be configured as they
151
are because humans are inevitable, and once we exist, we participate in the
universe to preserve our existence.
apoxia: Oxygen deprivation to the cortex that often results in out-of-body
and near-death experiences.
assortative mating: The idea that like marries like. People are attracted to
other people who are similar to them in looks and beliefs, and this leads to
offspring who are similar to their parents in both genetics and upbringing.
atheism: Disbelief in, denial of, or lack of belief in the existence of God or
a deity or deities.
attentional blindness: The tendency to miss something obvious and general
while attending to something special and specific.
attribution bias: The tendency to attribute different causes for our own
beliefs and actions than those of others; also known as the fundamental
attribution error. There are several variants: A situational attribution bias
happens when we identify the cause of someone’s belief or behavior in the
environment; a dispositional attribution bias is when we identify the cause
of someone’s belief or behavior in the person as an enduring personal trait;
an intellectual attribution bias is when people consider their own beliefs as
being rationally motivated; and an emotional attribution bias is when people
see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven.
Glossary
availability bias: The tendency to assign probabilities of potential outcomes
based on examples that are immediately available to us, especially those that
are vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged.
behavior genetics: The study of the relative roles of nature and nurture,
genetics and environment, biology and culture, primarily through the use of
twin studies, most notably, twins who were separated from birth and raised
in separate environments.
blind-spot bias: The tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in
other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs.
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body schema: The brain’s mapping of the body, from toes and fingers
through legs and arms, into the torso, and up the back to the top of the head.
It may also extend beyond the body into the world when engaged with other
people through language—when writing something down on paper or typing
it into a computer—or when engaged in any other extended reach from
inside the head to outside the body.
burden of proof: The principle in skeptical thinking that the burden of proof
is on the person making the claim and not on the recipients of the claim.
channeling: A form of ESP or paranormal activity in which a long-dead
person speaks through a living “channeler.”
circular reasoning: Also known as the fallacy of redundancy or a tautology,
this is the process of attempting to prove a claim or bolster a belief by simply
restating it in other words.
cognitive dissonance: The uncomfortable tension that comes from holding
two conflicting thoughts at the same time.
cognitive heuristics: Thinking shortcuts to help us make snap decisions under
uncertainty; also known as cognitive shortcuts or cognitive rules of thumb.
cold reading: A type of mentalism in which someone “reads” someone else
“cold,” having never met the subject. It is a trick used by psychics and others
to make it seem as if they have ESP.
comparative method: A historical method of hypothesis testing wherein
the historian examines natural experiments that took place in history with
an eye toward finding similarities and differences to explore similar or
different outcomes.
compliance: The outward apparent conformity by individuals to group
norms or an authority’s commands.
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confirmation bias: The tendency to search for and find confirming
evidence for what we already believe and to ignore or rationalize away
disconfirming evidence.
conformity: The internalization of a group’s beliefs to the point where they
become one’s own.
conspiracy: When two or more people meet or confer in secret to act against
a third party.
conspiracy theory: The belief in a conspiracy that may or may not be
true. The events of 9/11 were the result of a conspiracy; by definition, 19
members of al-Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without warning us
ahead of time constitutes a conspiracy. The theory that the U.S. government
orchestrated 9/11 is a conspiracy theory.
construct: A nontestable statement to account for a set of observations.
convergence-of-evidence method: Sometimes called the “consilience of
inductions,” this is the process of examining converging evidence from
multiple lines of inquiry to determine whether it leads to a single conclusion.
Copernican principle: A principle based on the discovery of the 16th-century
Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus that the Earth is not the center of
the solar system. The principle holds that our planet has no special status
in the cosmos, that we are not special, and that if the laws of nature operate
elsewhere in the cosmos as they do here, then planets such as Earth and life
such as ours should be typical and common.
Glossary
cult: A religious group with novel religious beliefs and a high degree of
tension with the surrounding society.
curse of knowledge: A cognitive bias in which better-informed people find
it difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed
people. Once we know something, we can’t un-know it, and knowing it
influences how we interpret it.
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deduction: A specific prediction based on a hypothesis.
dehumanization: The process of removing the humanity of people by
treating them as “others”—so different from everyone we know that they
must be effectively strangers, perhaps not even human.
deindividuation: The process of removing people’s individuality by taking
them out of their normal social circle of family and friends, dressing them
in identical uniforms, or insisting that they be team players or go along with
the program.
diffusion of responsibility: The collective beliefs among members of a
group that someone else is taking responsibility for a particular problem or
issue, to the point where no one acts.
dogmatism: Basing conclusions on authority rather than logic and evidence.
domain-general intelligence: An individual’s ability to acquire and use
knowledge to analyze various situations and conditions, find solutions to
problems, and so on.
domain-specific intelligence: An individual’s knowledge in a specific field,
such as psychology, history, and so on.
Drake equation: Equation proposed in 1961 by the radio astronomer Frank
Drake for estimating the number of technological civilizations that reside
in our galaxy: N = R fp ne fl fi fc L. The variables are as follows: N = the
number of communicative civilizations, R = the rate of formation of suitable
stars, fp = the fraction of those stars with planets, ne = the number of Earthlike planets per solar system, fl = the fraction of planets with life, fi = the
fraction of planets with intelligent life, fc = the fraction of planets with
communicating technology, L = the lifetime of communicating civilizations.
dualism: The belief in two substances in the world—corporeal and
incorporeal, body and soul, brain and mind; in contrast with monism.
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either-or fallacy: Sometimes called the fallacy of negation or the false
dilemma, this is the attempt to set up a false choice between one claim and
another, such that if you can disprove the first claim, the second one must
be true. But this is not so; they could both be wrong. Positive evidence is
needed in favor of a belief, not just negative evidence against another
person’s belief.
endowment effect: The tendency to value what we own more than what we
do not own.
ESP: Extrasensory perception, or the claim that information may be
transferred through nonsensory or extrasensory means beyond the present
understanding of the science of sense perception.
essentialism: The belief that objects, animals, and people contain an
essence—an invisible force or substance that is at the core of their being that
makes them what they are—and that this essence may be transmitted from
objects to people and from people to people.
Euthyphro’s dilemma: A problem set forth in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro:
Does God embrace moral principles naturally occurring and external to
him because they are sound, or are these moral principles sound because he
created them?
Glossary
fact: A conclusion confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to
offer provisional assent.
Fermi’s paradox: Named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who first
proposed the problem: Assuming the Copernican principle that we are not
special, abundant extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) should exist; if so, then
at least some of these ETIs would have figured out self-replicating robotic
spacecraft and/or practical interstellar space travel themselves. Assuming
that at least some of those ETIs would be millions of years ahead of us on
an evolutionary time scale, their technologies would be advanced enough to
have found us by now, but they haven’t, so… where are they?
156
first cause argument: A proof of God proposed by the Catholic theologian
Saint Thomas Aquinas; argues that all effects in the universe have causes,
including the universe itself, and therefore, there had to be a first cause, or God.
folk numeracy: Our natural tendency to misperceive probabilities, to think
anecdotally instead of statistically, and to focus on and remember short-term
trends and small-number runs.
framing effect: The tendency to draw different conclusions based on how
data are presented or framed by choice alternatives.
G-force–induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC): Experienced by pilots
subjected to G-force acceleration; they lose consciousness and often experience
“dreamlets,” or brief episodes of tunnel vision, sometimes with a bright light
at the end of the tunnel; a sensation of floating; and out-of-body experiences.
global coherence: The psychological propensity to believe that everything
happens for a reason, there are no accidents, and that there is an overriding
force or operation at work—either natural or supernatural—that ties together
apparently discoherent events into one grand or global theory. In conspiracy
theorizing, this often manifests as the New World Order.
God: An all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and all-good
(omnibenevolent) being who created the universe and everything in it out of
nothing; is uncreated and eternal; and is a noncorporeal spirit who created,
loves, and can grant eternal life to humans.
high road of controlled reason: Controlled processes in the brain that tend
to use linear, step-by-step logic and are deliberately employed; we are aware
of these processes when we use them. Such controlled processes tend to
occur in the front (orbital and prefrontal) parts of the brain. The prefrontal
cortex is known as the executive region because it integrates the other
regions for long-term planning.
hindsight bias: The tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present
knowledge; also known as Monday-morning quarterbacking.
157
Hume’s maxim: Observations by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher
David Hume, considered one of the greatest skeptical thinkers in history,
on the nature of belief, evidence, and miraculous claims: “A wise man
proportions his belief to the evidence,” and: “No testimony is sufficient to
establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood
would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”
hypnagogic hallucination: Delusional mental states that occur just after
falling asleep, as the conscious brain slips into unconsciousness. In this fuzzy
borderland between wakefulness and sleep, people report seeing and hearing
things that are not actually present, such as speckles, lines, geometrical
patterns, representational images, and voices and sounds.
hypnopompic hallucination: Delusional mental states that occur just before
waking up, as the conscious brain emerges from the unconsciousness of
sleep. In this fuzzy borderland between sleep and wakefulness, people report
seeing and hearing things that are not actually present, such as speckles,
lines, geometrical patterns, representational images, and voices and sounds.
hypnotic regression: A technique in which a subject is hypnotized and
asked to imagine regressing back in time to retrieve a memory from the past
and then play it back on the imaginary screen of the mind. The technique is
unreliable as a method of memory retrieval.
hypothesis: A testable statement accounting for a set of observations.
identification: The close affiliation with others of like interest, as well as the
normal process of acquiring social roles through modeling and role playing.
Glossary
induction: The formation of a hypothesis by drawing general conclusions
from existing data.
intelligent design, intelligent design creationism: The belief that the order,
purpose, and design found in the world is proof of an intelligent designer
and that the description of the creation in the Bible roughly matches that of
modern science, although evolution is limited in what it can create.
158
locus of control: The extent to which an individual believes that he or
she is in control of the environment (internal locus of control) or that the
environment controls the individual (external locus of control).
logic-tight compartments: Modules in the brain analogous to watertight
compartments in a ship that allow us to hold conflicting beliefs simultaneously.
loss aversion: Losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good; thus, we are
averse to loss and avoid it where possible.
low road of automatic emotion: Automatic processes in the brain that tend
to operate unconsciously, nondeliberately, and in parallel; we are unaware
of these processes when we use them. Automatic processes tend to occur in
the back (occipital), top (parietal), and side (temporal) parts of the brain. The
amygdala is associated with automatic emotional responses, especially fear.
lucid dream: A dream in which the sleeping person is aware that he or she is
asleep and dreaming but can participate in and alter the dream itself.
Manchurian candidate: Based on the film of the same name, this is a
brainwashed human capable of being completely controlled by another to
the point of being commanded to commit murder or mayhem.
methodological naturalism: The principle of science that holds that life
is the result of natural processes in a system of material causes and effects
that does not allow or need the introduction of supernatural forces. This
fundamental concept is rejected by advocates of intelligent design.
microseizures: Small seizures in the temporal lobes of brains that may
produce what can best be described as “spiritual” or “supernatural”
experiences: the sense of a presence in the room, an out-of-body experience,
bizarre distortion of body parts, and even profound religious feelings of
being in contact with God, gods, saints, and angels.
mind schema: Similar to our body schema, the mind schema is our
psychological sense of self, coordinating the various independent neural
networks that at any given moment are working away at various problems
159
in daily living into a coherent whole perceived as a “self.” There is some
evidence that this happens in the left hemisphere of the brain.
miracle: An event with million-to-one odds of occurring.
monism: The belief in one substance in the world—corporeal (no
incorporeal), body (no soul), brain (no mind); in contrast with dualism.
monological belief system: A unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs
come together in a mutually supportive network.
mysticism: Basing conclusions on personal insights that exclude external
validation.
near-death experience: Characterized by one of three commonly reported
elements: (1) a floating sensation in which the subject looks down and sees
his or her own body; (2) the feeling of passing through a tunnel or spiral
chamber toward a bright light that represents transcendence to “the other
side”; (3) emergence on the other side and the sight of loved ones who have
already passed away or a godlike figure.
null hypothesis: The assumption or default position that the hypothesis
under investigation is not true (null) until proven otherwise.
obedience to authority: The blind following of a leader or authority figure
that leads people to commit acts they would not otherwise engage in.
objectivity: Basing conclusions on external validation.
Glossary
observation: Gathering data, driven by hypotheses that tell us what to look
for in nature.
out-of-body experience (OBE): The sensation of floating out of one’s
body, usually upward such that the view of the body is from above with the
body below.
160
Pascal’s wager: The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal
argued if we wager that God does not exist and he does, then we have
everything to lose and nothing to win. If we wager that God does exist and
he does, then we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
patternicity: The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful
and meaningless noise.
post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Literally, “after this, therefore because of
this”; also known as after-the-fact reasoning. This thinking is, at its basest
form, superstition or magical thinking, connecting A to B when there is no
connection. In statistical analysis, it comes in the form of “correlation does
not mean causation.”
pre-moral sentiments: Feelings or emotions related to morality, such as
shame or pride, evidenced by domesticated or wild animals.
prime mover argument: A proof of God proposed by the Catholic
theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas; argues that because everything in the
universe is in motion and nothing can be in motion unless it is moved by
another, there must necessarily be a first mover, or God.
principle of positive evidence: This principle states that a claimant must
have positive evidence in favor of a theory, not just negative evidence
against rival theories.
pseudohistory: A type of pseudoscience in which practitioners appear to use
the rigorous methods of scientific history but, in fact, selectively choose to
present only limited evidence in support of a particular belief about the past.
qualia: The subjective experience of the world through thoughts and feelings
that arise from a concatenation of neural events.
rationalism: Basing conclusions on logic and evidence.
reductio ad absurdum: The attempted refutation of an argument by carrying
it to its apparently logical and often absurd conclusion. A recent subset of
161
this fallacy has come to be known as reductio ad Hitlerum, in which one
equates someone else’s belief or claim with Hitler and/or the Nazis, thereby
gainsaying it by association with evil.
reduplicative paramnesia: A brain disorder in which people believe that
there are copies of people or places that they mix up into one experience
or story that makes perfect sense to them even if it sounds ridiculous to
everyone around them.
religion: A social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage
conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate
and reciprocate among members of a community.
representative bias: The tendency to judge the probability of an event based
on the essential features of its parent type.
science: A set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or
inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of
knowledge that is open to rejection or confirmation.
scientific method: The use of the hypothetico-deductive method, that is, the
process of (1) putting forward a hypothesis, (2) conjoining it with a statement
of initial conditions, (3) deducing from the two a prediction, and (4) finding
whether or not the prediction is fulfilled.
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI): The SETI Institute
is based in Mountain View, California, and is the largest and most active
organization searching for signals from extraterrestrials.
Glossary
self-justification bias: The tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to
convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done.
sensed-presence effect: Sometimes called the third-man factor, the sense or
feeling that someone or something else is present nearby, often triggered by
monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration,
hunger, fatigue, and fear.
162
shadow of enforcement: The mere presence of an authority figure or the
implication that someone or something is watching (including an invisible
watcher) makes people act more morally.
singularity: The point in time when computers will surpass human
intelligence and the doubling power of technologies will be such that the
world will change so rapidly that prediction is impossible. Singulartarian
Ray Kurzweil predicts that the singularity will come around the year 2030,
at which point medical technologies will be such that people will be able to
live forever.
skepticism: The rigorous application of science and reason to test the
validity of any and all claims.
sleep paralysis: A type of lucid dream in which dreamers are generally
not aware that they are dreaming but, rather, have the perception of being
awake and in bed. They often feel paralyzed, have difficulty breathing, feel
pressure on the chest, and sense the presence of another being in the room.
Additionally, they sometimes feel themselves floating, flying, falling, or
leaving the body, with an emotional component that includes an element of
terror but sometimes also excitement, exhilaration, rapture, or sexual arousal.
social facilitation: When the normal institutional brakes on behavior are
lifted, evil acts may be facilitated through the contagious excitement of the
group’s actions.
soul: A religious definition of this term might read as follows: a conscious
ethereal substance that is the unique essence of a living being that survives its
incarnation in flesh. A scientific definition might read: the unique pattern of
information that represents a person, stored in our DNA and neural networks.
Spinoza’s dictum: An observation by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher
Baruch Spinoza used as the motto of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic
magazine: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not
to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”
163
status quo effect: The tendency to opt for whatever it is we are used to, that
is, the status quo.
Stockholm syndrome: The process by which someone held captive comes
to adopt the beliefs and sympathies of his or her captors.
sunk-cost effect: The tendency to believe in something because of the cost
sunk into that belief.
synapse: The tiny gap between neurons in the brain by which they can
communicate by releasing neurochemical transmitter substances across the gap
to trigger (or not) the receiving neuron to “fire,” or have an action potential.
temporal lobe transients: Increases and instabilities in the neuronal firing
patterns in the temporal lobe region of the brain, located just above the ears.
Such transients are associated with paranormal experiences.
theism: Belief in God or a deity or deities.
theory: A well-supported and well-tested hypothesis or set of hypotheses.
type I error: Assuming that two events are connected when they are not;
also known as a false positive or believing that a pattern is real when it is not.
type II error: Assuming that two events are not connected when they are;
also known as a false negative or not believing a pattern is real when it is.
Glossary
UFO: Unidentified flying object. The key word here is “unidentified,” which
is not synonymous with “extraterrestrial,” even though many people assume
that if an object cannot be identified as something from this world, then it
must be from another world.
verification: The process of testing predictions against further observations
to confirm or disprove an initial hypothesis.
164
VMAT2 gene: Associated with increased self-transcendence, this gene is
believed by some scientists to lead people to find pleasure in spiritual activities,
such as prayer, meditation, chanting, singing, and other religious rituals.
warm reading: A type of mentalism in which someone does a reading of
someone else by stating information that is true for nearly everyone.
165
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