Pseudoscience: Science and Nonsense

Instructor: Dee Anne Wymer
Bloomberg University



Content Outline:

  1. What is science?
    1. Exploration of the philosophical and theoretical structure of the sciences.
      1. Structure and limitations - the domain of science
      2. An exploration of the distinction between the assumptions and methods of science in contrast to faith/belief systems
    2. Methodology of Science
      1. Formulation of laws, theories, hypotheses...definitions and boundaries of such ideas
      2. Classic development of scientific methodology and actual testing of science in the field and laboratory
    3. How "real" everyday working scientists do science
      1. Discussion of the realities of hypothesis formation and testing, verification, publication and grant structure (the self-corrective aspects of science); the frustrations and joy of the discovery process.

  2. Examples of Science and Misuse of Science
    1. The Burning Tree Mastodon Project - an example of a large multidisciplinary project focussing on what sounds fantastic (living 11,400 year old extinct mammalian bacteria). Description of how a large project of this nature operates and the publication and review process.
    2. The Cold Fusion Fiasco - detailed examination of how the self-correcting nature of science (through review process) was circumvented by two researchers and the resulting problems. This section also explores how publicity was purposefully manipulated by the Cold Fusion researchers creating a media frenzy.

  3. Pseudoscience
    1. Pseudoscience defined and characteristics common to most pseudosciences
    2. Examples of noted pseudosciences
      1. Scientific-Creationism
        1. History
        2. Their claims and arguments against evolution
        3. Evaluation of their ideas as science
      2. Extrasensory Perception (ESP)
        1. History
        2. Academic exploration of parapsychology
        3. Cognitive basis for why ESP seems to occur in everyday life
          1. Oddmatches and coincidence phenomena
          2. Tricks and population stereotypes utilized by stage magicians and scam-artists
      3. Faithhealing and Psychic surgery
        1. Nature of illnesses and the psychology of the ill
        2. The ugly side of magical thinking - Peter Popoff and Oral Roberts "industries" (an insider's look at the moneymaking enterprise of faithhealing and the consequences to patients)
        3. Expose of various scams
      4. Fantastic Archaeology
        1. Brief introduction to some of the many interesting ideas individuals have about our past (concentrating on the New World)
          1. Examples: Peopling of the New World (Lost Irish Monks, Lost Tribe of Israel, Atlantis, etc.) - the Newark Holy Stones (supposedly ancient Hebrew inscriptions recovered in Ohio burial mound)
      5. Various phenomena described and critically evaluated:
        1. Dowsing ("water-witching") - claims and reviews of actual test fields
        2. UFOs
        3. Shroud of Turin
        4. Crop Circles
        5. Other topics given current interests

  4. Psychology of the Believer - Prevalence of pseudoscientific beliefs
    1. Summary of various studies investigating prevalence in the United States population of the acceptance of a number of pseudoscientific claims.
      1. Acceptance / Non-Acceptance levels broken down by population subtypes (education levels, sociocultural backgrounds, etc.)
    2. Examination of why pseudoscientific beliefs are so deeply entrenched in a society that prides itself on "scientific and technological" advancements
      1. An example of the interplay of the above factors (and background for the next section): the sociological phenomenon of rumor panics and urban legends - "In Pursuit of Satan" (an exploration of supposed cult crimes and mass hysteria)
    3. The Role of the Media in Fostering Pseudoscience
      1. Prevalence of belief in the Media: a review of recent studies and polls of newspaper editors
      2. Review of the treatment of pseudoscience and science in the television factor: segments from a number of popular shows (e.g., Unsolved Mysteries) will be shown and discussed by the students, followed by the students' reading articles written by scientists and investigators critically examining the evidence.

  5. How to think critically
    1. Introduction to critical thinking: what is critical thinking?
    2. How to develop and sharpen thinking skills - going beyond memorization
      1. Review and in-class discussion of a series of articles written by various scientists and scholars from CSICOP on how to critically approach extraordinary claims:
        1. Guidelines to critical thinking
          1) Don't believe everything you read or hear
          2) Read between the lines (who is making the argument, why would they make such claims?
          3) Be wary of experts outside their own fields
          4) Read different opinions from diverse sources
          5) Sometimes where there is smoke there isn't fire
          6) "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"
          7) "You've got to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out" (apologies to Mark Twain)
      2. Broader application of insights gained from course lectures, readings, videos, and discussions to other aspects of everyday life.


Required Texts:

  • Kitcher, Philip.
    1982: Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. The MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Randi, James
    1987: Flim-Flam! Prometheus Books, New York.

Supplementary Readings & Suggested Readings:

  • Blackburn, Douglas
    1985: Confessions of a Telepathist: Thirty-Year Hoax Exposed. In A Skeptics Handbook of Parapsychology, edited by Paul Kurtz, pp.235-239. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Blackmore, Susan
    1985: The Adventures of a Psi-Inhibitory Experiementer. In A Skeptics Handbook of Parapsychology, edited by Paul Kurtz, pp.425-446. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Cole, John R.
    1982: Cult Archaeology in America. New England Antiquities Research Association, 16(3):pp.84-94.
  • Gill, Samuel T.
    1991: Carrying the War into the Never-Never Land of Psi, Part I. In Skeptical Inquirer, 15:pp.269-273.
    1991: Carrying the War into the Never-Never Land of Psi, Part II. Skeptical Inquirer, 15:pp.276-281.
  • Gish, Duane T.
    1979: Evolution? The Fossils Say No! Creation-Life Publishers, San Diego.
    1973: Creation, Evolution, and the Historical Evidence. In The American Biology Teacher, March:pp.132-140.
    1987: Startling Discoveries Support Creation. In Impact 171.
  • Gray, Thomas
    1987: Education Experience and Belief in Paranormal Phenomena. In Cult Archaeology and Creationism, edited by Francis B. Harrold and Raymond A. Eve, pp.21-33. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
  • Hicks, Robert D.
    1990: Police Pursuit of Satanic Crime - Part I. In Skeptical Inquirer, 14:pp.276-287.
    1990: Police Pursuit of Satanic Crime - Part II. In Skeptical Inquirer, 14:378-389.
  • Kehoe, Alice B.
    1987: Scientific Creationism: World View, not Science. In Cult Archaeology and Creationism, edited by Francis B. Harrold and Raymond A. Eve, pp.11-20. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
  • Klare, Roger
    1990: Ghosts Make News. In Skeptical Inquirer, 14:pp.363-371.
  • Lepper, Bradley T.
    1991: Holy Stone of Newark, Ohio: Not so Holy After All. In Skeptical Inquirer, 15:pp.117-119.
  • Nickell, Joe
    1989: Unshrouding a Mystery: Science, Pseudoscience, and the Cloth of Turin. In Skeptical Inquirer, 13:pp.296-299.
  • Randi, James
    1986: The Columbus Poltergeist Case. In Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by K. Frazier, pp.145-157. Prometheus Books, New York.
    1986: The Project Alpha Experiment. In Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by K. Frazier, pp.158-165. Prometheus Books, New York.
    1989: "Follow-Up". Skeptical Inquirer, 13:pp.91.
    1989: Peter Popoff and His Wonderful Machine. Chapter from The Faith Healers by James Randi, pp.139-181. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Rothman, Milton A.
    1990: Cold Fusion: A Case History in "Wishful Science"? In Skeptical Inquirer, 14:pp.161-170.
  • Ruse, Michael
    1988: Witness Testimony Sheet 'McLean V. State of Arkansas' Reprint of 1982 court transcript concerning the teaching of creation-science in public schools. In But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, edited by Michael Ruse, pp/287-306. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Singer, Barry and Victor A. Benassi
    1986: Fooling Some of the People All of the Time. In Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by K. Frazier, pp.57-63. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Shore, Lys Ann
    1988: Survey Finds Newspaper Editors Lack Scientific Sophistication. In Skeptical Inquirer, 12:pp.338-339.
  • Victor, Jeffry S.
    1990: The Spread of Satanic-Cult Rumors. In Skeptical Inquirer, 14:pp.287-291.
    1991: Satanic Cult 'Survivor' Stories. In Skeptical Inquirer, 15:pp.274-280.
  • Wade, Carole and Carol Tavris
    1990: Thinking Critically and Creatively. In Skeptical Inquirer, 14:pp.372-377.
  • Wymer, Dee Anne
    1990: More on the 'Holy Stones'. Newark Advocate newspaper, July 18.

Additional Sources:

  • Flew, Anthony (ed.)
    1987: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Frazier, Kendrick (ed.)
    1981: Paranormal Borderlands of Science. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Gardner, Martin
    1989: Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Klemke, E.D., Robert Hollinger, and A. David Kline
    1988: Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Kurtz, Paul (ed.)
    1985: A Skeptics Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Marks, David and Richard Kammanm
    1980: The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Numbers, Ronald L.
    1992: The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Randi, James
    1982: The Truth About Uri Geller. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Rhine, Joseph B.
    1953: New World of the Mind. William Sloane Associates, New York.
  • Ruse, Michael (ed.)
    1988: But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Prometheus Books, New York.
  • Salmon, Merrille H. (ed.)
    1992: Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.
  • von Daniken, Erich
    1973: Chariots of the Gods? Bantam, New York.
  • Williams, Stephen
    1991: Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of the North American Prehistory. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.


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