Social Issues

Instructor: Barry Beyerstein
University of British Columbia


Introduction: Course Overview & Announcements


Knowledge versus Belief

  • W. Grey (1994) Philosophy and the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer. v. 18(2): pp. 142-149.
  • Kurtz, P. (1994) The growth of antiscience. Skeptical Inquirer. 18(3): 255-263.
  • Alcock, J. (1995) The Belief Engine. Skeptical Inquirer. 19(3): 255-263.
  • Sagan, C. (1987) The fine art of baloney detection.
  • Lett, J. (1990) A field guide to critical thinking. Skeptical Inquirer. 14(2): 153-160.

A critique of postmodernism and epistemological relativism

  • Vaughn, L. (1988) Postmodernism as faith. Address delivered to the Second World Skeptics Conference University of Heidelberg, July, 1998.
  • Gardner, M. (1990) Relativism in science. Skeptical Inquirer. 14(4): 353-357.
  • Gardner, M. (1996) Physicist Alan Sokal's hilarious hoax. Skeptical Inquirer. 19(6); Nov./Dec. 1996:14-16.
  • Haack, S. (1997) Science, scientism, anti-science in the Age of Preposterism Skeptical Inquirer. 21(6): 37-42.
  • Gardner, M. (1999) Carlos Castaneda and New Age anthropology. Skeptical Inquirer. 23(5): 13-15.

Fallability of human perception, memory, and reasoning.

How these human frailties contribute to false beliefs about the world.

  • Sutherland, S. (1992) Introduction, from Irrationality: Why we don't think straight. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers. University Press. pp. 1-14.
  • Gilovich, T. (1997) Some systematic biases in everyday judgement. Skeptical Inquirer. 21(2): 31-35.
  • Buckhout, R. (1974) Eyewitness testimony. Scientific American. Dec. 1974.
  • Loftus, E. (1997) Creating false memories. Scientific American. Sept. 1997: 71-75.
    this reading is also relevant to the Week 11 topic of psychological quackery
  • Avalos, H. (1994) Mary at Medjugorje: A critical inquiry. Free Inquiry. 14(2): 48-54.
  • Siegel, R. (1992) Ch. 6 (excerpt), Fire in the Brain. NY: Plume; pp. 91-97.

Recommended Readings:

  • Bartholomew, R.E. and E. Goode (2000) Mass delusions and hysterias: Highlights from the past millennium. Skeptical Inquirer. 24(3): 20-28.
  • Martin, B. (1998) Coincidences: Remarkable or random? Skeptical Inquirer. 22(5): 23-28.
  • Gilovich, T. & Savitsky (1996) Like goes with like: The role of represent-ativeness in erroneous and pseudoscientific beliefs. Skeptical Inquirer. 20(2): 34-40.
  • Blackmore, S. (1992) Psychic experiences: Psychic illusions. Skeptical Inquirer. 16(4): 367-376.
    [Shows that believers in paranormal phenomena are more prone to certain errors of reasoning, etc., than non-believers]


Alien Abductions

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

  • Klass, P. (1994) Bringing UFOs Down to Earth. Amherst, NY: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
  • Korff, K. (1997) What really happened at Roswell? Skeptical Inquirer. 21(4): 24-32.
  • Simpson, D. (1980) A controlled UFO Hoax: Some lessons. Skeptical Inquirer. 4(3): 32-39.
  • Wright, D. (1995) It must be real - A pilot saw it. Skeptical Briefs. December, 1995; p. 9.
  • Willwerth, J. (1994) The man from outer space. Time. April 25, 1994; pp. 74-75.
  • Blackmore, S. (1994) Alien abduction: The inside story. New Scientist. November 19, 1994; pp. 29-31.
  • Cone, W. Research/Therapy methods questioned. UFO. 9(5): 32-34.
  • Keyes, B. (2000) SETI: The Drake Equation.
  • Broad, W. (2000) Maybe we are alone in the universe after all. The New York Times.

    Recommended Readings:

  • The first two articles discuss the Drake Equation and the great number of variables that have to come together perfectly in time and place to allow life to evolve. The third explains why Ccrop circles are almost certainly all hoaxes.)
  • Faulkes, Z. (1991) Getting smart about getting smarts: Evolutionary biology and extraterrrestrisl intelligence. Skeptical Inquirer. 15(3): 263-268.
  • Pigliucci, M. (1999) Where do we come from? A humbling look at the biology of life's origins. Skeptical Inquirer. 23(5): 21-27.
  • Nickell, J. and J.F. Fischer (1992) The crop circle phenomenon: An investigative report. Skeptical Inquirer, 16(2):136-149.

ESP & Psychic Phenomena

  • McCrone, J. (1994) Psychic powers: What are the odds? The New Scientist. November 1994, pp. 34-38.
  • Hyman, R. (1988): Psi experiments: Do the best parapsychological experiments justify the claims for psi? Experientia. 44: pp. 315-321.
  • Radin, D. and Hyman, R. (2000) Is there a sixth sense? Psychology Today. vol. 32(4), 44-51.
  • Beyerstein, B. (1988) The brain and consciousness: Implications for Psi phenomena. The Skeptical Inquirer , v. 12(2), pp. 163-173.
  • Hooft, G. (2000) Physics and the paranormal: A theoretical physicist's view. The Skeptical Inquirer, v. 12(2), pp. 27-30.
  • W. Grey (1994) Philosophy and the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer. v. 18(2): pp. 142-149.
    Note: Please re-read this article, also assigned for Week Two

    Recommended Readings:

  • Rowe, W. (1996) Psychic detectives. In G. Stein (ed.) The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 584-597.
  • Wood, D. (1992) The psychic search for Selena Sung. Vancouver. Feb. 1992: pp.21-27.
  • Marks, D.F. (1988) The psychology of paranormal beliefs. Experientia. 44: pp. 332-337.
  • S. Blackmore (1991) The elusive open mind: Ten years of negative research in parapsychology. In K. Frazier (ed.), The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 125-135.


The exam will consist of three pairs of essay-type questions, taken from the lists of study questions handed out in the first 4-5 weeks of the class. The exam will be closed book, but students will have seen all possible questions, on the study question sheets.


Survival after death


The Psychology of Transendence

Out-of-Body Experiences

Near-Death Experiences

  • Hines, T. (1988) Spiritualism. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Amherst, NY= : Prometheus Books: 21-29.
  • Hines, T. (1988) Life after death. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books: 60-76.
  • Beyerstein, B.L. (1988) Neuropathology and the legacy of spiritual possession. Skeptical Inquirer: 12(3): 248-262.
  • Nickell, J. (1999) Review of psychic medium James van Praagh on CNN's Larry King Live. Skeptical Inquirer Electronic Digest (6/8/99)
  • Shermer, M. (2000) New York trains psychics. Skeptic Magazine Hotline, Jan 28, 2000.
  • Shermer, M. (2000) New York dumps psychic program. Skeptic Magazine Hotline, Jan. 29, 2000.
  • Hyman, R. (1977) Cold reading: How to convince strangers t hat you know all about them. The Zetetic. Spring/Summer 1977: pp. 18-37.
  • Beyerstein, B. L. (1996) Visions and hallucinations. In G. Stein (ed.) The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 789-797.
  • Ebbern, H., S. Mulligan, and B. Beyerstein (1996) Maria's Near-death experience: Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Skeptical Inquirer, v. 20(4): pp. 27-33.
  • Blackmore, S. (1991) Near-death experiences: In or out of the body? The Skeptical Inquirer, , v. 16(2), pp. 34-45.
  • Nickell, J. (1995) The skeptic-raping demon of Zanzibar. Skeptical Briefs. December, 1995, pp. 1-3.

Brainwashing & Cults

  • Langone, M. D. (1988) Cults and Mind Control. From the American Family Foundation Web Site.
  • Andersen, S. M. (1985) Identifying coercion and deception in social systems. In B. Kilbourne (ed.), Scientific Research and New Religions. San Francisco, CA: Pacific Division of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, pp.12-23.
  • Singer, M. T. (n.d.) Conditions for thought reform. From the American Family Foundation Web Site: Lifton, R. J. (n.d.) Thought reform. from the American Family Foundation Web Site.
  • Schein, E. H. (1956) Excerpt from: The Chinese indoctrination Program for Prisoners of war: A study of attempted brainwashing. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Internal Processes. Vol. 19, May 1956, pp. 149, 171-172.
    (whole article included under recommended readings)
  • Storr, A. (1996) Some characteristics of gurus. Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus. New York: The Free Press, pp. xi-xvii.
  • Kurtz, P. (1997) Heaven's Gate linked to the media. Press release: CSICOP, Box 703, Amherst, N.Y.

    Recommended Readings:

  • Schein, E. H. (1956) The Chinese Indoctrination program for prisoners of war: A study of attempted brainwashing. Psychiatry. Vol. 19, May, 1956: pp. 149-172.
  • Trostle, L. C. and Green, M. (1996) The devil made me do it: Adolescent attraction to Satanism. Justice Center Web Site, The University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Pseudoscientific character reading


Handwriting Analysis (Graphology)


Tea-leaf reading


  • Kelly, I. (1980) The scientific case against astrology. Mercury. November-December 1980: pp. 135-142.
  • Hines, T. (1988) Astrology, the lunar effect and biorhythms. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books: 140-164.
  • Rotton, J. (1997) Moonshine. Skeptical Inquirer. 21(3): 44-46.
  • DeRobertis, M. (1999) Astrology survey II. Ontario Skeptics Newsletter.
  • Furnham, A. (1991) Hooked on horoscopes. The New Scientist. 26 January, 1991: pp. 33-36.
  • Beyerstein, B. L. (1996) Graphology. In G. Stein (ed.) The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 309-324.
    Note: Please re-read Ray Hyman's article on Cold Reading in Week 6 readings.

    Recommended Readings:

  • Dean, G. (1987) Does astrology need to be true? Part 1. A look at the real thing. Skeptical Inquirer. 11(2): 166-185.
  • Dean, G. (1987) Does astrology need to be true? Part 2 . The answer is no. Skeptical Inquirer. 11(3): 257-273.
  • Krieg, E. (n.d.) Things most skeptics don't know about astrology.

Medical and Psychological Quackery

Pseudoscience in medical and psychological treatment

  • Angell, M. and J. P. Kassirer (1998) Alternative medicine: The risks of untested and unregulated remedies. The New England Journal of Medicine. 339(12) 839-841.
  • Selections on quackery from Stephen Barrett's web site: Quackwatch
    - Quackery: How should it be defined?
    - Common misconceptions about quackery.
    - Vulnerability to quackery.
    - Ten ways to avoid being quacked.
    - Acupuncture, Qigong, and Chinese Medicine.
    - Don't let chiropractors fool you.
  • Beyerstein, B.L. (1999) Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. 3(2): 16-29.
    [available at: www.crhp.net]
  • Beyerstein, B. L. (2000) Bad medicine. Simon Fraser News. July 13, p. 5.
  • Beyerstein, B. (1999) Fringe psychotherapies: The public at risk. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. 5(2): 5-13.
  • McHugh, P. R. (1992) Psychiatric misadventures. The American Scholar. Autumn, 1992.
  • Carroll, B. (1996-2000) Crazy therapies: What are they? Do they work?
  • Loftus, E. (1997) Creating false memories. Scientific American. Sept. 1997: 71-75.
    Note: Please re-read Elizabeth Loftus article, assigned for Week 4

    Recommended Readings:

  • Relman, A. (1998) A trip to Stonesville. The New Republic. Dec. 14, 1998, 4(378): 28-37.
    A thorough critique of the fantastic ideas of the New-Age health guru, Andrew Weil.

Alleged Mysterious energies and fallacious notions about energy


Fire walking

Perpetual motion

The Bermuda Triangle

Pyramid Power

Moon effects


Therapeutic touch

Subtle energies

  • Rothman, M. (1989) Myths about science and beliefs in the paranormal (excerpt). Skeptical Inquirer, 14(1): 31-34.
  • Schadewald, R. (1989) Perpetual motion: The perpetual quest. In T. Schultz (ed.) The Fringes of Reason. NY: Harmony Books, pp. 120-128.
  • Randi, J. (1999) The matter of dowsing. SWIFT. 2(3/4), January, 1999. pp.1-4 .
  • Randi, J. (1980) Put up or shut up (excerpt). From Flim-Flam. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 307-325.
  • Leikind, B. J. & W. J. McCarthy (1985) An investigation of firewalking. Skeptical Inquirer, 10(1): 23-34.
  • Lindsay, D. (1998) Human auras and energy fields.
  • Carroll, R.T. (1998) Auras. The Skeptic's Dictionary.
  • Barrett, S. (2000) Therapeutic touch.
  • Gibson, T. (1999) The Bermuda Triangle.

Monsters and cryptozoological beasts


Nessie and Ogopogo



The format will be the same as for the mid-term exam. All the possible questions will be handed out in advance in the lists of study questions. The final exam will consist of three pairs of questions chosen from the study lists.


If you have material to contribute, please contact us via e-mail