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Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

Learn how the process and rules of rational inquiry can help you to arrive at the truth of any subject. In this 18-lecture course, a leading public intellectual shows you how to use scientific thinking to overcome your own brain’s hardwiring and cognitive biases.
Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 65.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Skepticism 101-How to think like Scientist Superb lecture by Professor Michael Shermer, entertaining, informative and fun.
Date published: 2023-11-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Gives Skepticism a Bad Name This course is a Jeremiad against conspiracy theories. It excoriates Creationism, Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), Extra Sensory Perception (ESP), and Holocaust denial. It endorses evolution (asserting that Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection disproved the doctrine of Special Creation held by religion) and vaccinations. He never discussed the limits of what science can determine and what it cannot determine (e.g., beauty, love, morality, and other metaphysical entities). Dr. Shermer is hostile to religion. He defined religion as “a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community.” I’m not sure that religious people or a religious scholar would agree with this definition. Also, he defines the difference between a cult and a religion as about 100 years. I provide these quotes to suggest that the course sometimes leans to polemics and away from scholarship. It is certainly insulting to those who adhere to a religion. Dr. Shermer has a PhD in History of Science (not science itself). He does not have a tenured position at a university but he does teach as an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University (where he got his PhD) and Chapman University. His publications include the Charlie Rose Show, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, the Phil Donahue Show, the Colbert Report, and various documentaries on PBS, A&E, the Discovery Channel, and TLC. The course guide is average by The Great Courses (TGC) standards. It is written in bullet format as opposed to paragraph or outline format, which disrupts the continuity of thought somewhat. It averages about 8 pages per lecture, which is slightly above TGC average. There are no useful graphics. It has an extensive glossary and an extensive bibliography. I used the audio version of the course. There were no topics where I thought that visual graphics would have made a difference. The course was published in 2013. RANT ALERT. I try to be objective and factual in my reviews but this paragraph is both subjective and emotional; if you are not interested in personal and emotional comments, skip this paragraph. I found it painful to listen to this course even when I agreed with the judgment he drew. For instance, he consistently demanded that his opponents conform to the most rigorous scientific method including double blind experiments with formal null hypotheses while he sometimes quoted isolated opinions and anecdotes if they supported his opinion. Dr. Shermer presented himself as a skeptic but he seemed to me to be awfully sure of himself and of science. Rather, he put himself in the position of having asked all the right questions and having found all the right answers; why are *you* deceived? Is he really a skeptic or just a scoffer?
Date published: 2023-10-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well Structured A thought provoking discussion of the scientific process
Date published: 2022-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to show beliefs are false or unproven This covered far more topics than I imagined. Just about any unsupported belief system can trap the non-skeptical mind - which includes just about everyone. So Shermer gives guidance to how scientists and skeptics can avoid accepting totally bogus concepts.
Date published: 2022-01-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Whole is Less than the Sum of Its Parts There is much to like in almost each individual lecture in this course. But for me much of the course organization does not flow particularly well. For example in an early lecture Dr. Shermer mentions that he is an atheist. Just as a statement, with no particular expansion or follow-up. Fair enough, at least we don’t have to guess his position. Then in a later lecture, he distinguishes between agnosticism and atheism, pointing out that while one can be an agnostic, deciding that God can nether be proven to exist or to not exist, as a matter of practicality, one must act (live their life) as either an atheist or one who believes in a higher power. Nice! An intellectual v a practical construct. And now we know exactly and with more clarity Dr. Shermer’s position. But at least for me it would have made more sense to either have presented that argument along with his first statement, or (perhaps better in the course structure) delayed stating his own position until bringing forth the complete statement in the context of that latter lecture. In addition, some individual lectures seemed not to have any reason to be included in the course. Lecture 9, comparing SETI and UFOlogy is an example. But on the plus side, even on this extraneous topic, there was much within the lecture itself to admire. I particulary liked his discussion as to why some might fall into the belief that they had in fact been abducted. And as a follow-up to that, lecture 17 on life and death had a very interesting and valuable discussion as to near-death experiences. Overall Professor Shermer backs up most of his points with detail, statistics and referenced authorities. As an aside, I am a Richard Feynman aficionado, but even I would have liked it better if Dr. Shermer had quoted or referenced him 50% less often and used other authorities a bit more. As an example, a story about Houdini helped start that lecture off with a bang. Good, but a bit more please, Professor. Professor Shermer’s presentation is smooth and does not falter, just as one would expect from a person who makes much of their living on the lecture circuit. I took the course on audio and did not feel that I missed anything by not having a video version.
Date published: 2020-01-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Skeptics So far so good. I don't like absolutes and the presenter has stayed away from that
Date published: 2019-11-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining and thought-provoking Professor Michael Shermer’s course titled “Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist” is thought-provoking, entertaining, and good to listen to while driving: his pacing and articulate, pleasant delivery are easy to pay attention to without being distracted. Each lecture is divided into about 6 tracks (segments) of about 5 minutes each, and each lecture concludes with applause. Many topics are covered (UFOs, Holocaust denial, cults, the existence of God…) that few people are neutral about, with a summary of arguments on both sides. Of course people are free to believe whatever they want within the confines of their own mind / brain (Shermer repeatedly revisits whether mind and brain are the same – he believes they are; he refers to that debate -- in lecture 6? -- as “not uncontroversial”, which I understand to mean “is controversial”). As a fan of critical thinking, I appreciate Shermer defining terms, but at times distinctions between knowledge, faith, and belief seemed muddled, maybe because people seem to define the limitations of each for themselves. Some things can be self-evident, and not everything scientific is true – even mathematics has axioms which are accepted as true without proof. If the existence of evidence is the difference between skepticism and just choosing to not believe something, the weighing of evidence is still subjective (as any courtroom trial proves) because it depends on a person’s willingness (or not) to be convinced. Page 68 of the guidebook refers to “whether fraud is unknowingly or knowingly perpetrated”. How can fraud be “unknowingly” perpetrated? It requires intent, and that the fraudster has knowledge he’s lying, or be reckless in his ignorance of the truth. Also, in lecture 13 Shermer gave an example of social facilitation (defined on page 108 of the guidebook as “the tendency of people who are engaging in a similar behavior to spur one another on”) as when police beat a “perp” when they catch him following a chase after he’s fled. Police often witness people committing crime, and need to take people into custody to answer charges, but referring to someone as a “perp” (perpetrator of a crime) seems premature before a plea or verdict. Early on (lecture 3?) Shermer challenges the existence of miracles by reducing possible outcomes to matters of statistical probability. If his “what’s more likely…” reasoning were conclusive, then reality would be a lot more predictable. Shermer describes many logical fallacies and biases for which he gives examples and discusses research (unsurprisingly Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” was in the guidebook’s “Suggested Reading” list for multiple lectures). Diversity and tolerance are good and important, but lecture 11 seemed dismissive of some accomplishments of Western European civilization, almost as if it was just the result of chance. Every culture has good and bad qualities, without any culture being “superior” to another, and what kind of “intelligence” IQ measures is debatable, but Shermer’s claim that a person who can be taught to fly an airplane is as “intelligent” as the person who invented it seems to equate training to innovation. The many amazing attributes of native and aboriginal cultures can be celebrated without diminishing some remarkable achievements of other cultures that developed rapidly into modernity and spread across the globe. Beethoven’s talent to compose the Moonlight Sonata and a concert pianist’s aptitude to play it are not the same, and both are needed. In lecture 13 on cults, the words “cult” and “evil” began to be used interchangeably. Unlike Shermer, I don’t regard cults as possibly being one phase in the natural life cycle of a belief system as it develops into a mainstream religion, but his characterization of cults as evil reminded me of “People of the Lie” by M. Scott Peck. Peck proposed evil should become a psychiatric diagnosis, and one of the ways it manifests is as interference with another’s spiritual growth. Shermer suggests one antidote to evil cults is “we can stay true to ourselves”, but for that to work one would have to believe evil is something that arises totally outside of oneself, and I’m not sure that’s always the case: monstrous people could very well be convinced they’re being true to themselves. People’s judgement is often clouded when they’re weak, impaired, or vulnerable. If evil is a mental illness as Peck argued, then it’s even less likely “thinking for oneself offers an antidote” as Shermer suggests because questioning one’s own sanity is one of the first things a person stops doing when they’re mentally ill. Lecture 14 discusses the evolution of religion and its benefits in social groups. I suspect religion could have evolved when early people noticed the earth being more fertile where something dead was buried, so they started making connections in their minds between life and death, and thought maybe they could increase life by increasing death, so began making sacrifices, and war, etc. Shermer says religion is an institution, but doesn’t mention all institutions are based on inequality, which is what can make religion so oppressive and pernicious. In lecture 16, Shermer mentions evolutionary psychologists determining the science behind moral emotions, that jealousy has to do with mate guarding, and “that we pair bond because the rearing of children is so time and labor intensive that it takes two people”. It’s worth noting here, as Philip Slater did in “The Pursuit of Loneliness”, that “child rearing is not a full-time job at any age in and of itself”, and until post-World War II suburban America, “in every other society throughout history women have been busy with other tasks, and reared their children as a kind of parallel activity”. Some evolutionary psychologists hold that monogamy evolved to benefit men because it reduces fighting between males by increasing their chances of finding eligible mates. As an evolutionary psychologist might point out, your genes don’t really “care” about you being happy, their mission is just to get themselves into the next generation. Lectures 15 and 16 continue the discussion about morality and the existence of God. A sociologist might say that human beings have basic drives which they can choose to deny, whereas other animals have instincts which they must obey. But it seems belief is essential to human existence. A book I read in my youth (“The Courage To Be” or “The Wisdom of Insecurity”?) discussed three types of anxiety that people experience: physical anxiety having to do with death, nature, etc., social anxiety having to do with conscience, what other people think of us, etc,, and spiritual anxiety having to do with confronting the concept of meaninglessness in one’s life, and which leads to despair. Because humans can’t exist in a state of despair, they transcend it through faith. While Shermer presents arguments for and against the existence of God, which at times made me feel as if I were eavesdropping on a late night discussion among undergrad co-ed philosophy majors who had just returned to their dorm after attending a Bible study, I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to believe something for some reason other than being one hundred percent convinced it can be proven true. If believing there’s a meaning for suffering makes someone less bitter and less angry then that may be good enough. Many people turn to God in their more desperate moments, and believing could make the difference in being able to survive the moment. Also in lecture 15, Shermer states “honesty is vital for human relationships”. Many evolutionary psychologists might argue that deception is also vital for human relationships, which is why people have evolved to be so adept at it. Shermer quotes a version of the Bible’s golden rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) put forth by many different doctrines, including Utilitarianism, which surprised me because I’ve always considered Utilitarianism to be more of an end-justifies-the-means philosophy where right action is defined as whatever benefits the greatest number of people. Shermer kept trying to work out a relationship between religion and morality, I rather share the opinion of Bertrand Russell who thought morality is not nearly as dependent on religion as many religious people would have one believe, and that’s why he felt he always found so much more morality outside of churches than in them. The course concludes with Shermer’s “Skeptic’s Toolkit” to help people develop “skills for thinking like scientists” (I wish he’d left out the couple of Woody Allen quotes). Shermer states there are no “authorities” in science, there are just “experts”, which reminded me of my mid-1980’s business systems teacher’s definition of an “expert”: “An ‘X’ is an unknown, and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure”. Personally, when someone offers something as a fact, I ask myself, “Why do they want me to believe THAT?” Many people often don’t know the real reasons they do things, they’re sometimes motivated by some discoverable agenda, or are not being honest, even with themselves. Lastly, Shermer claims spirituality is not incompatible with science. I could assert that religion is not incompatible with science either. It’s no coincidence that Darwin and many early naturalists such as Gilbert White started out in divinity school or were ordained: they believed God speaks to man through creation, and to study nature is to study the mind of God.
Date published: 2019-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very insightful This is a wonderful book about skepticism, it is definitely a book to be read and enjoyed, the lecturers are excellent and can help anyone. Great job.
Date published: 2019-05-25
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Overview

Despite our best efforts, we are all vulnerable to believing things without using logic or having proper evidence—and it doesn’t matter how educated or well read we are. Our brains seem to be hardwired to have our beliefs come first and explanations for our beliefs second. But there’s a method for avoiding this pitfall of human nature, and it’s called skepticism. In Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist, Professor Michael Shermer of Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University reveals how to apply the rational, empirical methods of skepticism to detect specious claims and faulty logic in any scenario you encounter. Over the course of 18 thought-provoking lectures that will surprise, challenge, and entertain, you will inspect everything from the methodology employed by Holocaust deniers to the biology of near-death experiences.

About

Michael Shermer

INSTITUTION

Claremont Graduate University

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the best-selling author of several books, including “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.” As a public intellectual, he regularly contributes op-eds, book reviews, and essays to the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. His two TED talks, viewed nearly 8 million times, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 2,000 TED talks.

Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

Trailer

The Virtues of Skepticism

01: The Virtues of Skepticism

As the professor introduces you to the definition of skepticism and the concept behind the larger skeptical movement, learn how myths like the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon get started, why scientists aren’t able to effectively debate pseudoscientists, and why smart people believe in what skeptics call “weird things.”

32 min
Skepticism and Science

02: Skepticism and Science

What is the difference between a theory and a construct? How does skepticism relate to science? How do we know anything is true? Answer these and other questions as you explore how science works, what it means to think like a scientist, and the essential tension between skepticism and credulity.

28 min
Mistakes in Thinking We All Make

03: Mistakes in Thinking We All Make

From coincidences and false reasoning to tautology and false analogies, there are a number of classic thinking fallacies and biases that interfere with our ability to reason clearly and rationally. This lecture provides an overview of the 12 most prevalent types of fallacies of thought that can lead us to make mistakes in our thinking.

29 min
Cognitive Biases and Their Effects

04: Cognitive Biases and Their Effects

Once we form beliefs and commit to them, we reinforce them through powerful cognitive heuristics—otherwise known as rules of thumb or cognitive biases—that guarantee we are always correct. Explore the various types of biases we allow to influence us and learn how they can both help and hinder how we understand the world.

29 min
Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life

05: Wrong Thinking in Everyday Life

Has the status-quo effect ever led you to complacency? Have you ever held onto a stock too long because its value fell below what you paid for it? Explore the research on how people behave irrationally when it comes to money and which cognitive biases and fallacies of thought most interfere with our ability to make rational decisions about purchases and investments.

30 min
The Neuroscience of Belief

06: The Neuroscience of Belief

We all have a natural tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. Learn why we’re hardwired to be superstitious and prone to making false positive errors through an investigation of the evolutionary origin of superstition and magical thinking. Discover how the brain’s neural networks drive the two central processes—patternicity and agenticity—that lead to the formation of beliefs.

32 min
The Paranormal and the Supernatural

07: The Paranormal and the Supernatural

According to Professor Shermer, there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural, and the mysteries we have yet to explain. Discover how faulty neural activity and anomalous neural firing can lead to paranormal, supernatural, and extraordinary experiences, then consider scientific explanations for these natural phenomena.

31 min
Science versus Pseudoscience

08: Science versus Pseudoscience

Who has the burden of proof in science—the person making the claim or the person hearing about the claim? Delve into human psychology, the need to believe, and the age-old techniques psychics use to lure people into believing that paranormal powers are real. Then, see how the preconceived notions of scientists can skew research results.

29 min
Comparing SETI and UFOlogy

09: Comparing SETI and UFOlogy

What is the difference between scientists engaged in SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—and proponents of the existence of UFOs? Make a distinction between science and pseudoscience through an analysis of the supposed alien crash-landing at Roswell, physiological explanations for the experience of alien abduction, and an exploration of the attempt to answer the question “are we alone?”.

31 min
Comparing Evolution and Creationism

10: Comparing Evolution and Creationism

From the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial to the 2006 Dover trial over the theory of Intelligent Design, look at the history of the evolution and creationism debate, which has important political and cultural ramifications for science and education. Break down the “God of the Gaps” argument and consider why people shouldn’t fear evolution.

30 min
Science, History, and Pseudohistory

11: Science, History, and Pseudohistory

How can we tell the difference between scientific history and pseudohistory? What is the difference between historical revisionism and historical denial? Find out in this lecture that looks at the methodology of alternative historians and revisionists, specifically people who deny the Holocaust despite an overwhelming convergence of evidence. Conclude with an example of good historical science.

31 min
The Lure of Conspiracy Theories

12: The Lure of Conspiracy Theories

Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Address the larger topic of conspiracies and conspiracy theories by contrasting erroneous claims surrounding Princess Diana’s death, the terrorist attacks of September 11, and the assassination of President Kennedy with the true conspiracy that led to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Learn the characteristics that indicate a conspiracy theory is unlikely to be true.

30 min
Inside the Modern Cult

13: Inside the Modern Cult

See how the power of belief and other strong psychological forces can override the rational mind and lead people to become members of cults. Learn the many characteristics that define a cult, from veneration of a leader to isolation from friends and family, then examine Heaven’s Gate as a case study for a modern cult.

32 min
The Psychology of Religious Belief

14: The Psychology of Religious Belief

Investigate the issues of God, morality, and the afterlife through the eyes of a skeptic. Why do so many people across cultures believe in some form of God? What role do evolution and our cultural history play in the tendency to be religious? Look at dramatic parallels in the mythology of one religion to another as you consider the many cultural and historical factors that go into the world’s religions and their varying beliefs about God.

31 min
The God Question

15: The God Question

The question of God’s existence has plagued humanity since ancient times, but it’s no less important a topic for skeptics to consider today. Using the Christian conception of God, examine the best arguments for and against his existence and judge the answer for yourself.

31 min
Without God, Does Anything Go?

16: Without God, Does Anything Go?

If we hypothesize that God does not exist, is morality as we know it null and void? Consider why humans are and should be moral, independent from religion and an all-knowing God. Delve into the evolutionary theory of morality through a discussion of the Natural Law theory, the cross-cultural endorsement of the Golden Rule throughout history, and evidence of pre-moral sentiments in animals and how these gave rise to real moral emotions in humans.

32 min
Life, Death, and the Afterlife

17: Life, Death, and the Afterlife

Polls show that the vast majority of people believe in an afterlife. In this last lecture on science and religion, learn the primary psychological reasons why this may be the case, and consider the dualistic nature of most religions, where the soul is separate from the body. Explore biological explanations for near-death experiences—and why the events seem so real to people who report having them.

31 min
Your Skeptical Toolkit

18: Your Skeptical Toolkit

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Explore this skeptic’s motto and assemble a “skeptical toolkit” of general principles that you can use for what the late great astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan called “the fine art of baloney detection.” Conclude with two broad observations about science and skepticism that illustrate just how important these modes of thinking are to our lives and to our society.

31 min

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