Pseudoscience: Why People Believe in "Weird" Things.

101 39 Section 221

Instructor: George F. Michel, Psychology Department, Rm 507, Byrne Hall, ext. 4246

e-mail:   Office hours: MTTh 1:30-3:00, or by appointment

Course Description: "Pseudoscience: (Why People Believe in "Weird" Things)" examines why superstitious behavior and weird beliefs are so prevalent, how they become established and are maintained, and how otherwise rational people come to believe in irrational phenomena. As a "Focal Point Seminar", this course is designed to introduce first-year students to the nature and scope of intellectual inquiry at DePaul University. In a Focal Point Seminar, students learn about a single topic in depth, and then learn to complicate their view of that topic by examining it from different perspectives. Students learn to read challenging texts ctitically and carefully and to use writing as a means of learning difficult subjects thoroughly and effectively.

Reasons for Course: We live in the most technologically advanced society in the most technologically advanced time in history. Yet, "weird" beliefs and superstitions are widespread. Many people believe in mind reading, past-life regression therapy, abductions by extra-terrestrials, witches, ghosts, and other supernatural notions. Although science is the foundation of modern technological achievements, many eschew real science in favor of pseudoscience notions such as "scientific creationism", "scientific evidence of racial superiority", "recovered memory syndrome", "alternative medicine". Such supernatural beliefs are prevalent among people of all occupations and every educational and income level. In this course, the student examines several well-understood, psychological processes such as, 1) our sensitivity to coincidence, 2) penchant for developing rituals and habits to counteract feelings of anxiety or impatience when filling time or when marking expected changes in lifestyles, 3) a fear of failure, 4) attempts to cope with uncertainty, and 5) a need for control of our destinies that often result in irrational beliefs and superstitious and erroneous behavior.

Purpose of Course: The purpose of this course is to enable the student to discover exactly how superstitions, erroneous decisions, and weird beliefs are a result of common cognitive processes invoked by attempts to cope with the complexity and uncertainties of life (especially the social aspects of life). These cognitive processes are manifest in several different kinds of strategies that are used in our intuitive reasoning. Some are close to good norms of rationality, whereas others depart sharply from them. Since the good and poor rational strategies co-exist, we are simultaneously both rational and irrational. The student is introduced to, and encouraged to use, the methods of skepticism to counteract the twin mental positions of cynicism and gullibility that result from the typical application of our intuitive cognitive processes as coping techniques.

Course Design: The course begins first by describing our intuitive cognitive processes. The student works through several examples which demonstrate how these processes contribute to fallacies of thinking. Then, alternative methods (e.g., decision analysis, problem-solving strategies, substituting small meanings for "the meaning of it all", and learning how to delay gratification) of coping with the complexity and uncertainty of life are presented. Finally, several pseudoscientific notions (e.g., Scientific Creationism vs. Evolutionary Theory, Evidence of Racial Superiority) are explored in greater detail (using traditional written sources and those provided via the World Wide Web). Through individual and team projects, the student is encouraged to probe these beliefs for evidence of common fallacies of thinking and to provide alternative methods for preventing and/or correcting the errors inherent in acquiring these beliefs.

Course Requirements: For each class meeting, the student is required to provide a written report (less than a page) of an instance of belief or reasoning, encountered in the media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) that is related to the current or previous assigned readings (see syllabus). At the end of the week, the student will provide a written report (no more than 2 pages) of what he/she learned during the week. Students will keep a daily journal describing any instance in which course readings or discussion has helped them avoid confusing science with pseudoscience. The student also will maintain a personal portfolio of his/her homework assignments and of the fallacies of reasoning identified for each class meeting. The portfolios will also contain each student's written explanations of how to correct the fallacies identified in the pseudo-scientific notions. At the end of the quarter, the student will lead, with other members of her/his team, a skeptical discussion of some form of "weird" belief (e.g., astrology, water dowsing, telepathy, spiritualism - check link for a list of articles to be used). Students will be graded on their contributions to class discussion, skeptical presentations, homework assignments, journals, and portfolios.

Assigned Texts:

Shermer, M. (1997). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: Freeman.

Vyse, S.A. (1997). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Course Syllabus:

Week/Topic                                                                                     Reading

I. Science and Skepticism                                                     Shermer - Chs. 1 & 2

    A. A skeptical perspective (decision-making, problem-solving, base-rate probability)

    B. The difference between science and pseudoscience

    C. The positive power of skepticism (delaying gratification, small victories)

II. How Thinking Goes wrong                                             Shermer - Ch. 3

    A. Fallacies that lead us to believe weird things

    B. Contiguity and the perception of causality and the establishment of rituals

    C. Cognitive illusions

III. Superstition and Magic                                                 Vyse - Chs. 1 & 2

    A. Believing in Magic

    B. The Superstitious Person

IV. The Science of Superstition                                         Vyse - Chs. 3 & 4

    A. Superstition and Coincidence: What are the Odds?

    B. Superstitious Thinking

V. Pseudoscience and Superstition                                     Shermer - Chs. 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8

    A. Normal, Paranormal, Deviations

    B. Near Death Experience

    C. Alien Abduction

    D. Epidemics of Accusations

    E. Cults

VI. Origins of Superstitions                                                 Vyse - Chs. 5 & 6

    A. Growing-up Superstitious

    B. Is Superstition Abnormal, Irrational, or Neither?

VII. Evolution and Creationism                                            Shermer - Chs 9, 10, & 11

    A. Twenty-five creationist arguments and twenty-five evolutionist answers

    B. Science defended and science defined

VIII. History and Pseudohistory                                         Shermer - Chs. 12, 13, 14, & 15

    A. The Holocaust

    B. How We Know about History

    C. Racism and Science

IX.  A Magical View of the World                                         Vyse - Ch 7

X.  Why Do People Believe What They Believe?                    Shermer - Chs. 16 & 17

Additional Readings (check link here for an additional annotated list):

Fearnside, W.W. (1980). About thinking. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fisher, S. & Greenberg, R.P., Eds. (1997). From placebo to panacea: Putting psychiatric drugs to the test. New York: Wiley.

Gould S.J. (1996). Full house: The spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.

Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.N. & Wason, P.C., Eds. (1977). Thinking: Readings in cognitive science. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, M.D. (1995). The Thinker's Toolkit: Fourteen skills for making smarter decisions in business and in life. New York: Random House.

Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A., Eds. (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Piatelli-Palmarini, M. (1994). Inevitable illusions: How mistakes of reason rule our minds. New York: Wiley

Rose, S. (1998). Lifelines: Biology beyond determinism. New York: Oxford University press.

Stich, S. (1983). From folk psychology to cognitive science: The case against belief. Cambridge, MA: The MIT press.

Some Useful Journals to Read

American Scientist

Natural History

New Scientist

Scientific American


Skeptical Inquirer

The Sciences