Pre-thinking:

What pseudo-science is and how does it affect beliefs and behaviors? Think about the biological influences on cognitive functions, such as visual or auditory input affecting how one perceives an object or event. Look for instances of cognitive bias. Note that Shermer says that science requires both good theory and good data.

Why you should listen:

Shermer’s work offers cognitive context for our often misguided beliefs: In the absence of sound science, incomplete information can powerfully combine with the power of suggestion (helping us hear Satanic lyrics when “Stairway to Heaven” plays backwards, for example). In fact, a common thread that runs through beliefs of all sorts, he says, is our tendency to convince ourselves: We overvalue the shreds of evidence that support our preferred outcome, and ignore the facts we aren’t looking for.

Who is he:

As founder and publisher of SkepticMagazine, Michael Shermer has exposed fallacies behind intelligent design, 9/11 conspiracies, the low-carb craze, alien sightings and other popular beliefs and paranoias. But it’s not about debunking for debunking’s sake. Shermer defends the notion that we can understand our world better only by matching good theory with good science.

He writes a monthly column for Scientific American, and is an adjunct at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University. His latest book is The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. He is also the author of The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics, Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and The Science of Good and Evil. And his next book is titled The Moral Arc of Science.

Questions:

  1. What is pseudo-science?
  1. Is,  “and then a miracle happens” a satisfactory explanation for natural phenomena?
  1. How does theory change perception, in reference to the case of Galileo and Saturn’s rings?
  1. Based on what is known from evolutionary psychology, why do people see faces, especially meaningful faces, like the Virgin Mary, or Jesus, or the Our Lady of Guadalupe, in everyday objects and why does the recognition of faces put the human race at an advantage from other species?
  1. What does priming have to do with auditory illusions such as the supposed references to Satan in the song Stairway to Heaven and visual illusions such as the Virgin Mary on a window in Florida? If people are not told there is a person in the window reflection, will everyone see the same image?
  1. Find a reverse speech web site and research the findings that have been reported. Share your findings with your class.

Why people believe weird things with Michael Shermer

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