Critical Thinking About the Paranormal

Instructor: Dr. Bob Baugher
Highline College



After taking this course the student should be able to:

  • Identify factors that interfere with and contribute to critical thinking
  • Discuss present attitudes towards science and pseudoscience in the U.S. and other countries
  • Delineate factors that influence the capacity of the human mind to process information
  • Apply scientific tools to examine claims of the paranormal


  1. Understanding the Capacity of the Human Mind to Process Information
    1. Functions of the brain
    2. Sources and types of cognitive biases
    3. Frame of Reference
    4. Problems in Eyewitness Testimony
    5. Illusions and Hallucinations
  2. Critical Thinking
    1. American and world attitudes toward science vs. pseudoscience
    2. Understanding false positives and false negatives
    3. How not to evaluate a claim: fallacies and noncritical thinking
    4. Helpful conventions during debate of paranormal claims
  3. An Introduction to Science
    1. Hypothesis testing
    2. The scientific method
    3. Tools of the Baloney Detection Kit
    4. The Committee for the Scientific Investigations of the Paranormal
    5. Contrast of science with pseudoscience
  4. Understanding Pseudoscience
    1. Categories
    2. Examples of paranormal claims
  5. Epistemology
    1. Ways of knowing
    2. Beliefs that contribute to acceptance of claims of the paranormal
    3. Beliefs that contribute to skepticism about claims of the paranormal
    4. Obstacles to knowledge
    5. Activities in thinking
  6. Steps for Analyzing Claims of the Paranormal
  7. . Steps for Summarizing Key Arguments in an Article
  8. . Synthesizing Critical Analyses in Order to Form a Judgement


On the first day of class a presentation is given, along with a survey for students to fill out, that sets the tone for critical thinking during the rest of the course. Dr. Baugher encourages that all classes exploring science and pseudoscience be taught using this method.

First, students are asked to answer Question #1 of the survey.

Next, the professor introduces Phil the Psychic. For the next 30-40 minutes Phil conducts "readings" (actually cold readings.) Students begin filling out Questions #2, #3 and #4 of the survey. The professor informs the class that Phil is a fraud.

The class then explores the "factors that contribute to a successful cold reading" by discussing the handout on the topic. 

(to accompany first day of class activity)

  1. My general belief in ESP is
    1. Extremely high
    2. Very high
    3. Somewhat high
    4. Not sure
    5. Somewhat low
    6. Very low
    7. Extremely low
  2. Approximate percent accuracy for Phil: correct ____% of the time


  1. Comments on Phil's ability: _____________________________________________________________
  2. My general belief in ESP is
    1. Extremely high
    2. Very high
    3. Somewhat high
    4. Not sure
    5. Somewhat low
    6. Very low
    7. Extremely low
  3. My general belief now in ESP is
    1. Extremely high
    2. Very high
    3. Somewhat high
    4. Not sure
    5. Somewhat low
    6. Very low
    7. Extremely low
  4. Comments ____________________________________________________________________


1. Demand Characteristics of the Setting

2. The Barnum Effect

3. The Fallacy of Personal Validation

4. The Greenspoon Effect

5. Short Term Memory

6. The Garbage Pail Phenomenon

7. Actuarial / Statistical Statements

8. The Function of the Brain: To Make Sense Out of Stimuli

9. Questions Disguised as Readings

10. Fish and Feedback

11. Confidence of Reader

12. Listen

13. Plant

14. Naive Observer



The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan


There will be three additional articles students will receive during the quarter.


  1. Pseudosciences
    • Definitions
  2. Cold Reading
    • Factors that contribute to successful cold reading
  3. What is Critical Thinking?
    • Definition
    • False Negatives and False Positives
    • Comparison of a Critical vs. Uncritical Thinker
    • Tolerance of Ambiguity
  4. Understanding How the Human Mind Works
    • Two functions of the brain
    • Understanding the Role of our Frame of Reference
    • Understanding self-biases
    • Four Sources of Thinking Errors
    • People Prone to Thinking Errors
    • Cognitive Biases That Can Influence Critical Thinking Ability
    • The Availability Hypothesis and the Power of Vivid Events
    • Gambler's Fallacy
    • Selective Perception and the quick death of non-events
    • Eyewitness Testimony
    • Like Goes with Like
    • The Role of Illusions and Magic
    • Understanding Hallucinations
  5. An Introduction to Science
    • Process vs. Product of Science
    • Hypothesis Testing
    • Science Journals
    • The File Drawer Problem
    • Science in the Media?
    • The Importance of Randomized Groups in Hypothesis Testing
    • Correlation versus Causation
    • CSICOP
    • Becoming more observant
  6. Epistemology
    • Definition
    • Six Ways of Knowing - How Have I Come to Know the World Around Me?
      • Use of one or more of the senses
      • Knowledge gained from an authority
      • Intuition
      • Genetically programmed survival behavior
      • Other - Pseudoscience, drugs, etc.
      • Reasoning
  7. How to use Reasoning: Sagan's Eight Suggestions in evaluating a claim (CHAD OF QI)
    • O = Occam's Razor
    • F = The Principle of Falsification
    • Examples of Beliefs that contribute to Skepticism about UFOs as Alien Visitors
      • Misperception - eyewitness testimony
      • Military explanation
      • Hoax
      • Need for attention
    • Example of Beliefs that Contribute to Acceptance of UFOs as Alien Visitors
      • Conspiracy
      • Excitement / positive feelings
      • Contempt / distrust of science and scientists
      • Group camaraderie
  8. Understanding Noncritical Thinking
    • What happens when the "magic trick" is revealed
    • Common statements
    • Conventions and manners during debate
  9. Science vs. Pseudoscience
  10. Activities in Thinking
    • Investigation
    • Interpretation
    • Judgement
  11. Two Obstacles to Knowledge
    • Assuming
    • Guessing
  12. Reasons for Oversimplifying an Issue
  13. Steps for Analyzing any Claim of the Paranormal
  14. Conducting Inquiry - How to Find Answers to Critical Thinking Questions
    • Two types of inquiry
    • Unanswerable questions
    • Where to look for answers
    • How much research is enough?
  15. Steps for Summarizing the Key Arguments in an Article
  16. Putting It All Together
    • Forming a Judgment
    • What is a Judgement?
    • Important questions to ask
    • Evaluating an argument: Distinctions to make



The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Chapter One: The Most Precious Thing




How was Mr. Buckley wide read?

4 - 5

What is Atlantis? How much scientific support for it exists?

4 - 5

Why isn't it Mr. Buckley's fault that he knows so little about science?


Surveys suggest that some ___% of Americans are "scientifically illiterate."


In 1995, Congress dissolved the Office of Technology Assessment. What was it?


What are the reasons for the popularity of pseudoscience?

15 - 17

List any pseudosciences popular in 4 other countries.


According to Sagan, many proponents of mainstream religions are reluctant to do what?

20 - 21

Contrast science versus pseudoscience.

Chapter Two: Science and Hope



The subtitle of this book, A Candle in the Dark, came from a book about what?

37 - 38

Briefly explain Sagan's 4 reasons for a concerted effort to convey science in every way we can to every citizen.


If an extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on earth examined what we are teaching our children on TV, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, comics, and books, what would they conclude?

Chapter Three: The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars

Reading is optional for this chapter. The chapter is a discussion of ways that we as humans have deceived ourselves with our perceptual and cognitive imperfections. Examples include the man in the moon, canals on Mars, and the Cydonia face on Mars.

Chapter Ten: The Dragon in My Garage

171 - 73 Summarize the dragon story and describe how a skeptic would approach it.
174 - 77 Summarize psychoanalyst Robert Lidner's experience with Captain Kirk. How does this show the way a therapist can be influenced by a client?
178 Extraterrestrials represent a hypothesis of last resort. You reach it under what circumstances?
178 - 79 What are pulsars?
180 What does Sagan say when he is asked, "Do you believe that there's extra-terrestrial intelligence?" and "Yes, but what is your gut feeling?"
181 Regarding UFOs, what does Sagan say about the "4400 physical trace cases from 65 countries."
182 Why are scars of supposed alien abductees not proof of their claims?
184 Show how critical thinking is important in purchasing a used car.
184 - 88 Regarding alien abductions, what does Sagan say about: burglar alarms; fetuses; sexually inactive teenagers; implants; the famous case of Richard Price and the foreign body in his penis; the 1995 film purported to be an autopsy of a dead alien.
188 What two choices to we have regarding the answer to purported alien abductions?

Chapter Twelve: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

203 More than ___% of American adults believe that on some level they have made contact with the dead.
204 - 5 Regarding J.Z. Knight, what does she claim? What are some of the questions that Sagan would like to ask?
209 - 10 What is the Baloney Detection Kit?
210 - 11 The Tools of the Baloney Detection Kit are summarized. I want you to commit these to memory. One helpful method is an acronym.

Try this: CHAD OF QI


Chain of arguments must link together


Hypotheses must be generated and tested and not held tightly


Authority carries little weight


Debate all sides


Occam's razor - given two equal hypotheses, choose the simpler


Falsifiable - all good hypotheses have the potential to be disproven


Quantifiable - find a way to measure it


Independent confirmation must be possible - not just one person


212 - 16 Be able to explain any 8 of the following things not to do when evaluating a claim (called fallacies) by using your own examples on the midterm exam.


212 Ad Hominem
212 Argument from Authority
212-13 Argument from Adverse Consequences
213 Appeal to Ignorance
213 Special Pleading
213 Begging the Question
213-14 Observational Selection
214 Statistics of Small Numbers
214 Misunderstanding of the Nature of Statistics
214 Inconsistency
214 Non Sequitur
215 Post Hoc or Propter Hoc
215 Excluded Middle or False Dichotomy
215 Short-Term vs. Long-Term
215 Slippery Slope
215 Confusion of Correlation and Causation
215-16 Straw Man
216 Suppressed Evidence or Half-Truths
216 Weasel Words


Chapter Four: Aliens

63-64 Describe the alien abduction scenario.
64 In  the 1992 poll of 6,000 Americans (commissioned by those who accept the alien abduction stories) 18% reported sometimes waking up paralyzed, aware of strange being(s) in the room. 13% reported episodes of missing time. About 10% reported flying through ______. What did the poll's sponsors conclude? What [important] question was never put to the survey participants? If we believed the conclusions by those who interpreted the poll, what would we have to conclude about the number of world-wide alien abductions?
64-65 What questions does Sagan ask to challenge the alien abduction claims?
68 Who was Mesmer? What did he do? What was "animal magnetism?" What did the commission appointed by the French Academy of Sciences do? How did Mesmer respond to the findings?
69 One of Sagan's important warnings about the effective use of the scientific method: "The more we want it to be true, the more ___________."
70 Explain the story of Kenneth Arnold and the origin of the term "flying saucer."
71 The original crashed saucer account turned out to be a hoax. Explain.
76 Discuss the story of crop circles and the role of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley.  What happened when they confessed?
77 What does Sagan say about the availability of the tools of skepticism?

Chapter Five: Spoofing and Secrecy

81 According to Sagan, among more than a million UFO reports since 1947, how many cases can reliably exclude misapprehension, hoax, or hallucination?
82 What is the UFO question that Sagan is almost never asked?
82 What was Project Bluebook and what was the attitude of the Air Force?
83 Why would the military be interested in UFOs?
83 How might balloons have contributed to UFO reports? What important experiment has never been conducted with high altitude balloons?
84-86 Discuss the Roswell incident and explanations which discount claims of a UFO crash.
88-89 Discuss the role of the National Security Agency. What do people typically believe when they see blacked out sections of reports? What explanation is given? Give the Elvis example.
90 What is the story (and Sagan's explanation) of the MJ-12 documents?
92 Why is a cover-up to keep knowledge of extraterrestrial life a secret for 45 years a "remarkable notion?"
92-93 What does NASA and military funding have to do with aliens?
95-96 What is the controversy of Aurora and area 51 in Nevada?

Chapter Six: Hallucinations

99-100 On these pages Sagan lists ads from a UFO magazine. What is the common thread that binds these ads?
100-01 When Sagan is invited to "ask them [extraterrestrials] anything." What does he ask? What answers does he get? What does Sagan mean when he says, "UFO occupants are so bound to fashionable or urgent concerns of this planet"?
101 The earliest commercially successful UFO "contactee" was George Adamski. What was his story? (be sure to describe the aliens).
101-04 The first alien abduction story was of Betty and Barney Hill. Describe the incident. What book did Betty read? How long afterwards were they hypnotized? Describe the aliens. What movie and TV episode was similar to the Hill's story? When Sagan met the Hills and listened to their hypnosis tape, what did he conclude? What did their psychotherapist conclude was the explanation for the Hills' experience?
104 Repeated surveys have shown that ____ to ____%  of ordinary, functioning people have experienced at least once in their lifetimes, a vivid hallucination. What has Sagan experienced since the death of his parents?
104 What has research on REM sleep shown can happen when people are deprived of dreams?
104-05 List and 3 or 4 triggers for hallucinations.
109 What might child nightmares have in common with adult reports of alien abduction? In what settings are abduction reports more likely to have occurred?
109-10 What is sleep paralysis and what  might be its role in abduction reports?
109-11 As facts about the inhabitability of Mars and Venus have emerged during the past quarter century, what has happened to the reported origins of aliens?



The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Chapter Seven: The Demon-Haunted World

This chapter is a discussion of the history of belief in demons, the torture of women accused of being witches, and the parallel with belief in alien abduction.

127-28 What is the other explanation for the historical parallels?
131 What has the power of repetitive imagery in advertising done to our beliefs? What question does Sagan ask? Prepare to give your answer on the midterm.

Chapter Eight: On the Distinction Between True and False Visions

138 What have experts said about the reliability of information obtained during hypnosis?
138 What did the study by Lawson show in which hypnotized subjects were informed they had been brought to a spaceship and examined?
130-40 Discuss the problems of reliability of:
  • Preschoolers
  • President Reagan's war stories
  • Witnesses coached by attorneys
141-42 Contrast the difference between the way science assesses theories and the way we assess new facts.
141-47 On these pages Sagan discusses apparitions of saints. Sagan makes parallels between apparitions and alien abductions. Explain.

Chapter Nine: Therapy

153 Who is John Mack? What did he conclude regarding a guide to whether a reported alien abduction is true? How did Sagan respond?
153-54 Spanos studied people who reported abductions. What did he conclude regarding: pathologies; characteristics; conclusion with rape and childhood sexual abuse?
155 On this page Sagan is setting the stage for what has been called False Memory Syndrome. He is reminding us of the real cases of child sexual abuse.
155-56 What is repression?
156 Summarize Neisser's explanation of false memories.
157 What do people say when they explain how memories of childhood abuse returned?
157 Summarize the cautious statement by the American Psychiatric Association.
158 What does the book The Courage to Heal say to therapists?
158 In what way does Sagan see false accusations of childhood abuse similar to reports of alien abduction?
159 What are satanic ritual cults? What are some systems described as Satanism?
161 The 1994 study done for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect examined over 12,000 claims of sexual abuse involving satanic ritual cults and found how many held up to scrutiny?
161-63 Cite the case of Paul Ingram. (What city?) What experiment did Ofshe perform? What were the results? Where is Paul Ingram now?
163-64 What did the past president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis say about skeptics of reports of satanic ritual abuse?
164 Cite the similarities in all classes of recovered memories.
166 Cite the 1991 case of the teenager who took her therapist to court.
166-67 Sagan suggested a controlled experiment with the patient sent to specialists in all three fields. What does he suggest the therapist says to such a client?
167 What was the experience of the self-described abductees whose stories were initially met with skepticism?

Chapter Thirteen: Obsessed with Reality

222 What has the Bible and the Torah said about the belief in the paranormal?
225-28 Tell the story of Carlos.
228-29 Who is James Randi? What has been his role in examining the paranormal?
229-30 How is the occasional charlatan in faith-healing different from the occasional fraud in science?
230 What is a placebo? With what kinds of ailments is it helpful? Under what conditions does a placebo "work"?
232-33 Tell the story of Lourdes. How many of the claimed miraculous cures were accepted by the Roman Catholic church? What is Sagan's analysis of this?
233 What did Minnesota physician William Nolen find in his year and a half study of faith healing?
234 What important questions does Larry Dossey ask in his book on the efficacy of prayer in treating disease?
234 Faith healers may characteristically help what type of diseases?
234-35 Explain the example of the Harvest Moon Festival in death rates.
235-36 Occasionally, what can faith healers do for followers?
236-40 Briefly finish the story of Carlos and Randi.
240 What did Alvarez and Randi prove?
240 While a faith healer may not start out with fraud in mind, what might happen?
241 What worries Sagan about the next "Carlos"?
241 If we've been bamboozled long enough, what tends to happen?
241 Explain the so-called "observer effect."
242 What happened when the spirit-rapper confessed that she was a fraud?
243 Take the example of crop circles and explain what tends to happen as each is explained as a hoax.
243 What does the example of the paragraph on the cold read tell us?

Chapter Fourteen: Antiscience



Read the quote of a summary of New Age beliefs. Prepare to state your reaction to this.
249-50 What point is Sagan making in comparing the understanding of Quantum Mechanics with a New Age doctrine?
252 "It is certainly true that all beliefs and all myths are worthy of a respectful hearing. It is not true that all folk beliefs are ___________________."
252 What has been the criticism of science?
254 Given that scientists make mistakes, what is the job of scientists?
258 What is wrong with the argument: When Darwin formulated his theory of evolution, he was an atheist?
263 While scientists are human and have biases and prejudices, how is it different from many other human enterprises?

Chapter Fifteen: Newton's Sleep

267 Science has been accused of being too narrow. That is, without   physical evidence, science does not admit to the existences of what things?
271 Until the middle of the 20th century there had been a strong belief that life was not reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry. What did people believe made living things go?
278 In theological discussion with religious leaders, Sagan often asks what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith was disproved by science. How did the fourteenth Dalai Lama respond?

Chapter Sixteen: When Scientists Know Sin

283 Sometimes scientists try to have it both ways: to take credit for enriching our lives, but to distance themselves from what?
291 Because technology has the capacity to destroy this planet, the ethical responsibility of scientists must be how high?

Chapter Seventeen: The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder

296 How does Sagan compare the American system of Jurisprudence with the way we should study the world around us?
298 What is the tendency for skepticism to deal with issues of public concern?
306 What does Sagan say about the marriage of skepticism and wonder?



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