Or: What it was Like Teaching a Course in Skepticism 101?
On March 31, 2011, I debated Deepak Chopra at Chapman University on “The Nature of Reality” that also featured Stuart Hameroff, Leonard Mlodinow, and several other commentators, all choreographed by the Chancellor of Chapman University, mathematician Daniele Struppa. In the greenroom before the debate Dr. Struppa was reviewing my bio and noted that I am an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and made a comment that I should be an adjunct professor at Chapman as well. I said something like “sure, why not?” and when he introduced me on stage he said something about how I might also one day teach there. Daniele said I could teach anything I want as part of their Freshman Foundations Courses, so I suggested a course on Skepticism 101, or how to think like a scientist (without being a geek). I taught it the Fall semester of 2011 to 35 incoming Freshman students and it was a blast.
During the semester I hatched the idea that since the Skeptics Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization specializing in science education, that we should organize all the course materials that professors and teachers around the world are already utilizing. That is, as I was developing my own course materials I remembered all the requests we had received over the years at the Skeptics Society from educators to reprint articles from Skeptic magazine or use videos of our Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. There are, in fact, hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of such courses that go under various names that involve skepticism, science and pseudoscience, science and the paranormal,psychology and parapsychology, the psychology of belief, the history of science, the philosophy of science, science studies, critical thinking, and the like. As I went digging through our own webpage Skeptic.com and surfed the Net for other teacher’s webpages in search of good teaching materials, we thought it might be good to invite people to submit their course syllabi, lectures, Powerpoint and Keynote presentations, videos, student projects, reading lists, and the like, which we just launched last week.
Thanks to the support of my good friend Tyson Jacobsen I was able to hire an outstanding graduate student, Anondah Saide, to organize the Skepticism 101 program for us, which began with her TAing the Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University. Anondah was one of my graduate students at Claremont Graduate University who conducts research into the sociology of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and she has a deep interest in education and how to teach students to think critically about the paranormal and the supernatural, so she was a perfect fit for the class and this program.
The premise of the course is that we have a serious problem: we live in the Age of Science and yet pseudoscience and the paranormal are believed by far too many people still. Yes, it is better than it was 500 years ago when nearly everyone believed nonsense, but these figures from a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, who were asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not”:
- 82% believe in God
- 76% believe in miracles
- 75% believe in Heaven
- 73% believe in Jesus is God
or the Son of God
- 72% believe in angels
- 71% believe in survival
of the soul after death
- 70% believe in the
resurrection of Jesus Christ
- 61% believe in hell
- 61% believe in
the virgin birth (of Jesus)
- 60% believe in the devil
- 45% believe in Darwin’s
Theory of Evolution
- 42% believe in ghosts
- 40% believe in creationism
- 32% believe in UFOs
- 26% believe in astrology
- 23% believe in witches
- 20% believe in reincarnation
Yikes! More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. And yet, such results match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades, including internationally. For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. A fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.
This got the attention of these Chapman students and they got right into it. We had them write an Opinion Editorial as if it were going to be submitted to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, in order to teach them how to communicate clearly and succinctly to a wider audience about a controversial idea (they could pick any idea from the course, which was quite broad in scope). They also had to do an 18-minute TED talk or participate in a 2 x 2 debate. It won’t surprise you to know that most 18-year old students are well aware of TED talks and have watched numerous videos at TED.com, including my own. The point was to teach them how to organize a short talk and say something meaningful in a brief period of time. The point of this exercise was to have a point! They did. And then some. Most were skeptical of the paranormal and the supernatural, so of course we had a few pro-atheist TED talks, but there were a couple of pro-God and pro-paranormal talks as well, just to spice things up. The most memorable talk had to be by a student who in explaining evolutionary psychology and why natural selection shaped us to prefer (that is, find attractive) symmetrical faces, clear complexions, shapely bodies (wide shoulders and a narrow waist in men, an hourglass figure in women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio), and the like, then put up a slide of Rosie O’Donnell as an illustration of pure ugliness and why no male could possibly find her attractive. Needless to say, in the requisite Q&A (every talk had one) the women in the class made mince meat of this fellow.
As well, the students were given a midterm and final exam in essay format based on the readings for the course, which included my own Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, bookended around Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic, and the book they all loved the most: Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality. In Paranormality, Wiseman provides numerous examples of how to test paranormal claims, and this led to the students final major assignment, which was a research project and YouTube video production to accompany it (or a Powerpoint presentation of their data). Check out the student projects that we have already posted in our Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center.
The point of these exercises was to get students doing things that involve skepticism, not just reading and answering test questions, as well as encourage them to have fun doing so by trying to make their presentations entertaining as well as educational.
I also tried something new (for me anyway) in grading: Anondah and I independently rated each student’s OpEd, TED talk, midterm and final answer, research project, and YouTube video or Powerpoint presentation, then compared our ratings, added them up and divided by 2. During the student talks and presentations Anondah and I sat at the back of the room as the “judges”—I joked that we were like Simon and Paula on American Idol playing good cop-bad cop. That was kinda fun.
Because the course deals with many serious subjects, such as religious beliefs, political positions, social attitudes, and the like, we also outlined for them our policy on controversies:
This course deals with many controversial topics related to people’s deepest held beliefs about god and religion, science and technology, politics and economics, morality and ethics, and social attitudes and cultural assumptions. I hope to challenge you to think about your beliefs in all these areas, and others. My goal is to teach you how to think about your beliefs, not what to think about them. I have my own set of beliefs that I have developed over the decades, which I do not attempt to hide or suppress; indeed, as a public intellectual I am regularly called upon to present and defend my beliefs in lectures, debates, interviews, articles, reviews, and opinion editorials. But in the classroom my goal is not to convince you of anything other than to think about your beliefs. I am often asked “why should we believe you?” My answer: “You shouldn’t.” Be skeptical, even of skeptics.
Finally, I explained that the goal of the course was parallel to the goal of the overall skeptical movement (as I see it anyway):
The Goals of the Skeptical Movement
- Debunking. There’s a lot of bunk and someone needs to debunk it. Like the bunko squads of police departments busting scammers and con artists, skeptics bust myths.
- Understanding. It’s not enough to debunk the things that people believe. We also want to understand why they believe. Through understanding comes enlightenment.
- Enlightenment. The power of positive skepticism linked to reason, rationality, logic, empiricism, and science offers us a world wondrous and awe-inspiring enough.
If you want to teach your own course in Skepticism 101, or are already teaching such a course, I encourage you to go to our webpage and have a look and take what you need. All materials are free.
If you would like to support the Skepticism 101 project, please make a tax-deductible donation. We are happy to accept anything you can afford, but might I suggest a $100 donation or even an automatically recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10?
In appreciation to all those who have already help support the Skepticism 101 project.