The Rhetoric of Extraordinary Claim

Instructor: Peter Marston
Department of Communication Studies
California State University - Northridge



Course Outline:

  1. Introduction to extraordinary belief.
    1. What is Belief?
      [reading assignment: 1-12pp in text]
    2. What is an extraordinary claim?
      [reading assignment: 13-29pp in text]
      Practicum: Vitamin O
      Practicum: Cryptozoology
  2. The role of perception in belief.
    1. Subjective biases in perception
      [reading assignment: 30-45pp in text]
    2. The reconstruction of perception in memory
      [reading assignment: 45-67pp in text]
      Practicum: Ghosts and spiritualism
      Practicum: Repressed memories
  3. The problem of relativism.
    1. Species of relativism
      [reading assignment: 68-79pp in text]
    2. The consequences of relativism
      [reading assignment: 79-92pp in text]
      Practicum: Past lives and reincarnation
      Practicum: Voodoo, hexes, and curses
  4. The role of evidence in justifying extraordinary claims.
    1. Reliable sources of evidence
      [reading assignment: 93-110pp in text]
    2. Dubious sources of evidence
      [reading assignment: 110-131pp in text]
      Practicum: Astrology
      Practicum: Millennialism
  5. The role of inference in justifying extraordinary claims.
    1. Confirmation bias
      [reading assignment: 132-140pp in text]
    2. Evidentiary fallacies
      [reading assignment: 140-147pp in text]
    3. Inferential fallacies
      [reading assignment: 284-290pp in text]
      Practicum: Psychic readings

      Practicum: Lunar effect


  1. Science as a basis for reasoned belief
    1. Principles of science
      [reading assignment: 148-160pp in text]
    2. Criteria of scientific adequacy
      [reading assignment: 160-171pp in text]
      Practicum: Creationism
      [reading assignment: 171-179pp in text]
      Practicum: ESP
      [reading assignment: 179-194pp in text]
  2. The special case of medical efficacy
    1. Identifying pseudoscience in claims of medical efficacy
      [reading assignment: 195-213pp in text]
    2. Scientific methods of determining medical efficacy
      [reading assignment: 213-232pp in text]
      Practicum: Therapeutic Tough (TT)
      Practicum: Remote intercessory prayer
  3. Methods of detecting irrationalism
    1. Detecting irrationalism in the paranormal
      [reading assignment: 233-240pp in text]
    2. Detecting irrationalism in pseudoscience
      Practicum: Homeopathy
      [reading assignment: 240-243pp in text]
      Practicum: Dowsing
      [reading assignment: 243-247pp in text]
      Practicum: UFO abductions
      [reading assignment: 247-258pp in text]
      Practicum: Channeling
      [reading assignment: 258-260pp in text]
      Practicum: Near-death experiences
      [reading assignment: 260-283pp in text]

Student Presentations



One of the characteristics of contemporary America popular discourse is a marked increase in irrationalism. Belief in the paranormal, pseudoscience, and millennialism is perhaps more prevalent than at any other time in the history of Western Civilization. This course seeks to test these beliefs through the application of rhetorical analysis and critical thinking to discourse advancing extraordinary claims. Upon completion of this course students should be able to:

  • Identify extraordinary claims in popular discourse.
  • Identify the types of appeals, including forms of reasoning and evidence, used to advance extraordinary claims in popular discourse.
  • Assess the strength of rhetoric advancing extraordinary claims.
  • Prepare critical analyses and refutations of rhetoric advancing extraordinary claims.


How to Think About Weird Things : Critical Thinking for a New Age
By Theodore Schick & Lewis Vaughn



All reading assignments are due by the due date given. The lecture material in the course is designed to build upon the assigned readings, and therefore, it is imperative that students complete their reading assignments before class.

In order to ensure compliance with the reading assignments, there will be a number of reading quizzes throughout the semester. These quizzes will be given only on days when a reading assignment is due and will cover only the material from that day's reading assignment. The general types of questions that might be asked include:

  • What are the authors main points?
  • Identify one or more concept(s) introduced in the reading.
  • What extraordinary topics are discussed in this reading?

Reading quizzes will consist of five questions. Three correct answers will constitute a passing grade. Semester grades for these quizzes will be assigned according to the following schedule:

  • No failing grades: A
  • One failing grade: B
  • Two failing grades: C
  • Three of more failing grades: F

Some students experience performance anxiety during the reading quizzes and believe that this anxiety prevents them from accurately demonstrating their understanding of the reading. If you find yourself in this situation, you may submit a brief summary of the reading (~2 pp.) in lieu of the quiz. These summaries may take any form (essay, outline, etc.) that the student may find useful. Summaries are also graded pass/fail, but any reasonable effort will receive a passing grade. Students who submit summaries are encouraged to take the reading quizzes as well, as the experience of taking a quiz without the pressure of a grade may help the student reduce exam anxiety and identify ideas, principles, and concepts that are seen as significant by the instructor.

There are no make-ups for reading quizzes. If a student misses a reading quiz, he or she will receive a failing grade on that quiz. Reading quizzes are administered at the very beginning of class, so it is important that you come to class on time. Students who enter class after the reading quiz has begun will not be allowed to complete the quiz (or to submit a reading summary.) If you arrive to class and the quiz has already begun, please wait quietly outside the classroom or in the doorway. Do not take a seat until all quizzes have been collected.

[reading quizzes: 20% of total class grade]


On the syllabus, there are nineteen practicum class meetings. On these days, the class will discuss rhetorical discourse dealing with some particular extraordinary topic. In preparation for these discussions, students are required to prepare a brief (~2pp.) statement of their assessment of the topic, both in terms of arguments or evidence students may find convincing and reservations students may have about claims made regarding the particular topic. These statements are designed to stimulate your thinking about the course material and to promote discussion, but will be collected and graded. Individual papers will be graded on a pass/fail basis. Semester grades for these essays will be assigned according to the following schedule:

  • No failing grades: A
  • One failing grade: B
  • Two failing grades: C
  • Three or more failing grades: F

There are no make-ups for the practicum essays. Missing and late assignments will be calculated as failing grades.

[practicum essays: 20% of total class grade]

Although the practicum papers and reading quizzes constitute less than half of the total class grade, they constitute the majority of your learning experience in the class. Accordingly, students who miss one-quarter of these assignments will not receive a passing grade in the course based upon their non-participation in the course curriculum. For the purpose of assessing non-participation, later assignments will be counted as missing assignments.


There is one paper in this course, a critical analysis report dealing with an extraordinary topic not discussed on a practicum day. This paper should provide an overview, critique, and, where appropriate, refutation of rhetorical discourse advancing extraordinary claims within the selected topic area. The discourse to be examined may be a single work or a more developed body of literature. Students must select different topic areas, and therefore, all topics and rhetorical works must be approved by the instructor. Suggested topic areas include:

  • Ancient Astronauts
  • Chelation Therapy
  • Cold Fusion
  • Copper Bracelet Therapy
  • Crystals
  • The "face" on Mars
  • Faith Healing
  • Firewalking
  • Graphology
  • Iridology
  • Levitation
  • Magnet Therapy
  • Miracle Diets
  • Nostradamus
  • Perpetual Motion Machines
  • Plant Perception
  • Psychic Surgery
  • Pyramid Power
  • Remote Viewing
  • Reverse Speech
  • Satanic Cult Abductions
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion
  • Stigmata
  • Thought Field Therapy
  • Velikovsky's Worlds-in-Collision Hypothesis
  • Witchcraft

Students are encouraged to investigate other topics as well, as long as they are associated with extraordinary claims and supplement rather than repeat our practicum discussions.

In addition to the report, students are required to prepare and deliver an oral presentation summarizing their findings to the class. The length of this presentation will be determined by the enrollment of the class. Both the written and oral components of this assignment will be graded. Papers are due on each student's scheduled presentation day.

[critical analysis report: 8-10 pages, 20% of total class grade]


There will be two examinations, a midterm and a final. Both exams will cover both lecture and reading materials and will consist entirely of short answer questions. The final exam will not be cumulative.

[midterm exam: 20% of total class grade; final exam: 20% of total class grade]


This course is designed according to the standard of the Carnegie unit (and in accordance with C.S.U.N. policy). This standard calls for two hours of outside study per week for each course unit. Thus, in this course, students are expected to devote six hours per week outside of class to reading, studying and preparing assignments. Evaluation standards for examinations and other assignments will reflect this expectation.


All students are responsible for understanding and following campus policies of academic honesty as described in the schedule of classes and C.S.U.N. catalog. Students violating standards of academic honesty will be penalized by a failing grade in the course and/or university disciplinary action.


Course grades will be assigned by summing weighted assignment and exam grades. Grades of record will be determined by the following scale:

  • A  = 3.75-4.00 GPA
  • A- = 3.50-3.74 GPA
  • B+ = 3.25-3.49 GPA
  • B  = 2.75-3.24 GPA
  • B- = 2.50-2.74 GPA
  • C+ = 2.25-2.49 GPA
  • C  = 1.90-2.24 GPA
  • C- = 1.60-1.89 GPA
  • D  = 0.90-1.59 GPA
  • F  = 0.00-0.89 GPA


Although the grading reflects the determination of grades under typical circumstances, the instructor reserves the right to adjust grades - both up and down - based upon the subjective assessment of elements such as citizenship, participation, diligence, and improvement in class performance, among others.

Students are expected to be good citizens and active learners. This entails: coming to class on time and prepared, asking for clarification when needed, answering questions asked by the instructor and other students, handing in all assignments, respecting the opinions of others, and doing your best at all times.


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